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Why Going Back to School Feels Like Surrendering Shelter

Tensions over masks and vaccines have complicated the return of in-person learning.

Onteora High School required masks for the Fall 2021 semester, but some students have resisted wearing them.
Sophie Frank
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As a senior in high school, I’ve had years to get used to back-to-school jitters. But this year, they were combined with unexpected anxieties. During the Year of Virtual Learning, I had to learn a whole new method of schooling. Finding classrooms, putting outfits together, making lunches—all that was gone, leaving school stripped down to its barest essentials: log into the meet, get passing grades. 

But with the regular world (sort of) back, the original anxieties and social pressures wait in the wings to make themselves relevant again, as do several new ones. I have to make a good impression on teachers with masks separating us; reunite with classmates after losing contact with most of them; and plan for college, my dream since I was in single digits. I have to handle all this amid the political division that grew impossible to avoid during the pandemic, and which hasn’t spared my small town, which is divided over masks and vaccines. Returning to school feels like surrendering shelter during a zombie apocalypse.

My town, Mount Tremper, is technically a hamlet. My friends and I used to jokingly compare it to the town in the CW teen drama series Riverdale (first season only). It’s the kind of small where grocery store stops last 10 minutes longer than planned because you bump into someone familiar. Everyone knows each other’s politics, and large swaths of life are a bitter battle between sides. As a kid, it was idyllic. I was too young to notice the tension, and I enjoyed my small school and the adorable stores lining the main streets of the closest towns. But I’ve watched it descend from the beautiful place where leaves change in the fall to a place riven by bitter feuds, neighbors turning on neighbors.

The division (liberal hippies with tie-dye skirts and $8 vegan lattes living alongside gun-carrying conservatives with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks) is not new. But the pandemic made our differences more stark. My peers and I started getting involved in politics during the 2016 election, but it was always a bit like a game. We enjoyed debating and feeling smart. When the pandemic hit and we saw how politics can tear people apart—can amount to life and death—it stopped being a game.

Now, for the most part, the two sides don’t interact. As back-to-school approached, community members didn’t even debate which safety precautions the school might implement. They retreated to their separate corners, certain their beliefs would prevail.

In the end, nobody got what they wanted. Or maybe both sides did. Onteora High School is at 100 percent capacity with no remote option, and the school also didn’t mandate vaccines, though it did require masks. That makes me feel somewhat safer, but it serves as yet another stark reminder of the division: almost half of the students eligible for the vaccine have gotten it, while the other half claimed they would refuse to wear masks. They made good on that promise starting on the first day of school, wearing American flag masks or neck gaiters below their noses, and snorting at the administration’s attempts to correct them.

In the past, my political Instagram stories led to rousing conversations. Now when I post, my follower count goes down. Political statements used to come in the form of T-shirts or stickers; during the pandemic people took to asserting their beliefs by gleefully violating safety norms. Conservative classmates who had previously expressed their emotions by tearing posters from the school’s GSA (Gender and Sexuality Alliance, the club that fights for LGBTQ+ rights in school) off the walls and stuffing them into toilets now express themselves by strutting around, masks at their chins. At virtual GSA meetings, I watched our numbers drop, as members revealed that the political tension had gotten too aggressive. My social life shifted as friend groups split apart on the basis of politics, and I wasn’t even sad—I was angry that I hadn’t seen the real world implications of political division sooner.

I had hoped that this town was an anomaly, but the pandemic proved me wrong. The whole country has gone through a similar reckoning, watching dysfunctional dynamics become amplified. I emerged with a more aware outlook, and the changes I’ve made are for the better. For example, I have given myself permission to value academics over my social life, to spend more time with teachers than with peers, and to dream of college from the front of the class. At the same time, the community seems to be imploding around me. And while it seems as if such a dire tear in the fabric of our country might extinguish young people’s hopes, judging by the way many of us hurried back into school, nervous and excited in both new ways and old, optimism for our futures appears to be alive and well.

After a summer of anticipation, the first day of school contained everything I’d wanted. I chatted with teachers and fell back into an easy rhythm with friends. But traces of the pandemic and the divide were on full display. Some maskless students snickered when others gave them a wide berth. Extracurriculars were canceled until further notice, deemed a COVID risk. (They have started up again, cautiously, only this week.) Teachers mentioned the possibilities of further shutdowns as winter comes and cases rise.

In many ways, the pandemic allowed me to step back and study my environment, like an amateur anthropologist. It was both grueling and one of the best educational experiences I’ve ever had. Surviving high school used to be the stuff of teen movie cliches. Then a pandemic put survival literally on the line. I’m happy to say I’m surviving.