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Opinion: All my friends can’t wait to return to campus; here’s why I’m torn

My high school opens this week. They are offering both hybrid and fully online learning to returning students. As someone who has spent the majority of their last six months at home, the thought of returning to campus thrills me. But going back to school is a much more serious decision than it appears.

I would be lying if I said that I didn’t want to go back to school. After so many months at home — all of the plans cancelled and time lost with friends — there is nothing I would enjoy more than returning to campus in an attempt to enjoy senior year while it lasts. If there is one thing I have learned over the past few months, it is the importance of appreciating these moments with each other no matter how trivial they seem because life so easily gets in the way.

After everything that has already happened, a semi-normal school year would be a dream. But COVID doesn’t follow a schedule. Across the country, failed high school and college reopenings have shown just how difficult keeping an entire student body socially distanced can be. In the case of many schools, physical distancing efforts are mere shadows of what is necessary to keep people safe. From inevitably packed hallways to large sports programs not requiring masks, returning to campus is a high risk in most, if not all, cases.

The biggest mistake my friends and I have made since the pandemic started was believing we had a right to things. A right to a satisfying end to junior year of high school, a right to a fun summer, and a right to a memorable upcoming senior year. This mindset only leads to disappointment and anger when expectations are not met and when situations out of our control get in the way.

We can’t deny that the pandemic is far from over, no matter how badly we want to believe it. For students, it is so hard to distinguish between what we want to happen and what most likely will happen when the reality of the situation is hard and depressing to accept.

As more and more schools around the state cancel their hybrid in-person/online plans for a completely online year, I have to wonder what the real purpose is in attempting to go to school on campus. Virtually everyone I have spoken to agrees that it’s only a matter of time before my school, in fact, returns online as well. There is no scenario where in-person classes last completely unobstructed. My school has invested a lot of resources to ensure the safety of the students, faculty and administration on campus, including adding a number of outdoor classrooms, extensive health screenings, social distancing guidelines, and a split student body that has classes on campus every other week.

Relative to many other high schools both locally and around the world, I feel generally safe returning to campus this year, but in a pandemic there is always risk. It’s human nature that people focus on the immediate bubble they live in, and we often forget to place ourselves in the larger context around us. Even if my school’s campus were to be sanitized multiple times a day and each person actually did follow rigorous physical distancing, the rest of our town, our state, our country likely won’t have that discipline or luxury.

Eventually, the reality that we are still in the middle of a pandemic will catch up to us. Even though my school is very well prepared to protect its students, I think we should consider making the greater sacrifice of voluntarily working remotely to protect those who are less prepared and more vulnerable. Once school reopens, we have the luxury of probably lasting a few weeks longer than other schools with in-person classes. Exactly for that reason, because we are well prepared and our students generally act responsibly, we should stay home to help those who are at greater risk in our community.

Alexander Huang-Menders is a high school senior at The Pennington School in Pennington.

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