By Maddie Gerber
Hometown Weekly Intern
“I really missed school” admitted senior Lauren Biedron, laughing. “Wow, I never thought I would say that.”
While this may have been an unheard-of sentiment last fall, this year, many students have been itching to get back to some sense of normalcy. Although returning to school has been anything but normal, the overall consensus is that it feels good to be back.
However, in order to return safely, the high school has made some significant changes. In order to lessen crowding, students have been split into four cohorts: red, green, blue, and gold. The red cohort is a fully remote academy run through the company Tecca, and the green cohort is fully in-person, while the blue and gold cohorts alternate between in-person and remote weeks.
On remote weeks, students in the blue and gold cohorts are either doing independent work or meeting synchronously with their classes on Zoom. While Biedron appreciates the extra time she gets to sleep on remote weeks, she feels somewhat adrift without a solid schedule. “This past week, I’m already resorting to my bad habits of napping and stuff because there is no schedule. I think that is going to be very difficult on the students not having a schedule every other week.”
On in-person weeks, the schedule is much more concrete, with students meeting with three to four classes per day for 85 minute periods. However, going inside the building has come with its own set of challenges; many extra precautions have been put in place to keep students and staff safe. In each classroom, desks are spaced six feet apart and students are expected to disinfect them before every class. Teachers’ desks are equipped with plexiglass as an extra barrier, and all students and staff are expected to wear their masks at all times.
The only exception to this rule is in the cafeteria, which quite honestly looks like something out of a dystopian movie. All of the tables have been replaced with individual desks, which are spaced apart and facing the same direction. According to first-year student Lucy Mackey, eating in the cafeteria is a strange experience. “Some people turn and talk but most people just go on their phones,” says Mackey, citing how difficult it is to interact in such an isolated environment. Mackey also worries that, as the weather worsens, fewer students will be able to sit outside and the cafeteria will become overcrowded. Students are also allowed to take outdoor mask breaks during the day as needed.
Another major shift that has led to much confusion among students is that hallways are exclusively one-directional routes. According to Becca Klein, even as a senior, the one-way hallways are difficult to navigate, and she’s gotten lost quite a few times. Nevertheless, despite these strange new rules and increased restrictions, students feel safe and are happy to be back. “I think that everyone is being respectful of the rules,” says Mackey. “It’s really nice to meet my teachers and see my friends again.”
However, now that people are in the building, one of the main concerns is how to keep them there. Many neighboring districts, such as Dover-Sherborn and Natick, have had to shut down their schools after high schoolers flouted social distancing guidelines by throwing large parties, leading to concern among the Needham community about the imminent threat of a shut-down. “It only takes a small group of kids going to a party to mess it up,” says Biedron, who has been outspoken about social distancing over the last few months. “I don’t think that people should be locked up in their houses,” Beidron clarified, noting the importance of socializing safely for mental health reasons, “but going to these parties in other towns with other kids puts so many people at risk.”
Biedron’s message is strikingly similar to a recent message sent out by NHS Principal Aaron Sicotte, who spoke directly to parents on the issue of parties. Sicotte highlighted how respectful and safe students have been while inside the building, and urged parents to set boundaries so that their children can be safe outside of school as well. “It’s you. You are the ones I need some help from,” Sicotte pleaded. “Please work in partnership with us, so that this whole in-person experience, that we all want so much, can happen.”
While, as Mr. Sicotte pointed out, the in-person experience has been very important for many students, education in a pandemic is clearly not one-size-fits-all. For those in the red cohort, being exclusively remote has been successful. In this remote academy, students meet with one to three classes every day for about an hour and a half, and on Wednesdays they meet with every class. Although first-year Owen Woo says it’s a little strange working on a completely remote platform, he’s been learning to adapt and says overall that it’s going well.
However, one issue that Woo and many other first-year students are facing is how to get involved in the high school community with such a disjointed schedule. Although Mackey says that upperclassmen have been friendly and inclusive in the building, outside of school she laments that “there really is no way for a lot of people to get involved.” Since clubs have been cut from the typical school day schedule, many of them are struggling to find times to meet, let alone recruit new members. According to Biedron, who is actively involved in many extracurriculars at the high school including student council and chorale, “it is frustrating that the school is trying to get sports to play rather than clubs and music groups that could actually happen safely. It just feels like anyone who doesn’t play a sport isn’t really being taken into account.”
Nevertheless, despite all of the bumps in the road, most NHS students are enjoying the ride and are grateful to be back. Furthermore, the turmoil caused by the pandemic has actually helped forge a stronger bond within the school community, as students are beginning to recognize how important NHS really is to them.
“I honestly didn’t appreciate school at all before this,” says Biedron, “but I’m certainly not going to take it for granted again.”