One year of distance


A year ago today, Lab closed for an extended spring break. This week students and teachers finally returned in-person.

Ella Beiser, Editor-In-Chief

As the U-High community returns to campus this week, a senior, an English teacher and a 2020 graduate reflect on the past year of remote learning, the return to school, and their hopes for the rest of the year.

Although an audio clip of students milling about chatting would have been a nice way to begin this story, the truth is, when school started March 8, the halls were eerily quiet. It was the first day of hybrid learning for the high school and 91 seniors had decided to return. 

A year ago today, the Laboratory Schools shut down early for an extended spring break. Students, in general, were happy to miss the last few days of finals and were looking forward to the long-awaited respite. COVID-19, although ever looming closer, still felt somewhat distant and removed from our lives. And nearly everyone, students and teachers alike, believed we would return to school, and normalcy, within a few weeks at most.

Obviously, that isn’t what happened and now, after almost a year of remote learning, Highschool students are finally returning to campus. 

Returning in-person has allowed seniors to say goodbye to a school and a grade that they’ve been with for four years. However, the school they are returning to has changed dramatically. The class of 2020 has graduated, there are six new teachers, and our director has left for another school. 

English teacher Colin Rennert-May remembers the last day of classes distinctly. 

“I think initially, by and large, people thought it would not be, certainly that we would not be like just coming back now, but okay will it be a couple of weeks or maybe it’ll be a month. And yeah of course there were some pessimists in the crowd who were like, ‘I think we’re gonna be gone for the rest of the year. We’ll be lucky to be back in school in the fall’, but very few people were thinking that way at that point.”

Senior Aanika Atluri echoes Mr. Rennert-May saying, at the time, the virus and school closure didn’t feel like a big deal.

“Yeah, I remember everyone was still like, not taking it as a joke, but like, it didn’t necessarily directly affect everyone yet. And so, people saw it as less of an imminent threat than they do now and so people sort of took things less seriously. I know some people thought it was excessive to have like spray bottles with disinfectant in every room and like having to wipe off our desks and things like that because it it just seemed so sudden I don’t think people had time to process before school shutdown.”

As Aanika said, people didn’t have time to process what was happening and to say goodbye to the school. Mr. Rennert-May thinks that had he known the length of time we would be gone for, he would’ve tried to find some closure. 

“I mean if I had known for sure, yes, I think I would have done something differently. I had a number of seniors in my classes that was the last time, unless I happen to run into them in Hyde Park since then, that I saw them. Although, I think to make a lot of that moment, I think that would have been hard for them too, because I don’t know what was the best way to find out that terrible news that you’re senior spring is immediately and henceforth canceled, and you’re not gonna be able to hang out with all the people, and you’re not gonna be able to have fun, and you’re going to be very isolated from other people and it’s going to be a mess. I don’t know what the best way would have been really to rip that band aid off for the seniors” 

Juliana Cui was a senior at U-High last year and experienced first hand the loss of her final semester in high school.

“We never really got an actual prom or graduation which I’m super bummed about but I regret not saying bye to a lot of my friends who I’m not as close with.”

Aanika is hoping to avoid that situation and reclaim the last few days of her senior year. 

I personally wanted to go back because I wanted to see everyone again and sort of get that last bit of our senior year back because I know we’ve missed out on a lot and I knew that coming back would be exciting and a memorable experience I guess. Even if it is only like eight days, it’s still nice to be back in the building where we spent so much time and sort of finish out our year there.”

However, coming to school was not the same. For one, the grades are split up and only the seniors were in person on Monday. The result of this was a school that still felt mostly empty even as kids walked to class.

“Well, a lot of things felt different. The hallways were very quiet, by and large, unless you just happen to catch people going in between classes. And, so, the school environment as a whole it felt much quieter it didn’t feel quite the same in that way. But I think it felt closer to the same than I thought it might. I thought it might feel really robotic, and dystopian and sad. And it didn’t feel that way. For instance, when I was with my advisory. I think people really felt happy to be together and see each other and just spend some time with some other people chatting and laughing.”

Like Mr. Rennert-May, Aanika could feel the change in atmosphere and ambiance of the school.

“I guess after being gone so long I feel like the atmosphere has definitely changed. I think people are a lot happier to be in the building than they were before because before it was sort of a mundane, everyday thing and people were stressed about tests and quizzes which they probably still are, but it was like a nice breather to be back around people and so I think people were a lot happier in general, than they were before.” 

One of the most significant things that coming back to school gave students according to Mr. Rennert-May, was the chance to reconnect with classmates and colleagues

“I miss the accidental meetings, a lot. I mentioned that but I don’t think I’d appreciated quite how important they are or I couldn’t have expressed that in the same kind of way but that’s a really hard thing to do on Zoom, you never zoom in to anybody by accident. Well, I won’t say never, but it would be unusual to accidentally bump into somebody in a Zoom room. Students come into the room onto Zoom. They mute themselves they don’t usually accidentally say something, there’s no playful joke or banter as you come into class, you don’t accidentally overhear something about the basketball game last night or about something else that’s going on in somebody’s life and it would be unusual to be able to ask that to a student in front of the whole group on Zoom.”

Mr. Rennert-May also hopes that creating an in person connection with his students will help them feel comfortable sharing their writing with him. 

“And there are ways that at least as an English teacher I feel some connections with students that I think are pretty meaningful. I’ve read a lot of their writing. Sometimes I’ve read some really beautiful and pointed things that they’ve written about themselves and their lives and the time we’re in now or something that goes well beyond that, as well so I feel these connections to students. And I don’t know, I worry that I haven’t been able to make them feel that connection to me and my class and to each other. And I guess I’m hoping that even though we’re not going to be together for more than 10 days, 12 days in person I’m hoping that there’s a way that those connections can still at least take root and get started. It is spring, after all it’s time for growing. So maybe that’ll be something I would really hope for over the next couple of months.”

Reporting for the U-High Midway, I’m Ella Beiser.