Alexandria City High School students and staff reflect on pandemic-era challenges

Alexandria City High School students and staff reflect on pandemic-era challenges
(File Photo)

By Mark Eaton |

For Alexandria City High School students and staff, the 2021-2022 school year has required unprecedented levels of flexibility and adaptability.

After in-person learning was suspended on March 13, 2020, Alexandria City Public Schools returned fully to classrooms and five days of in-person education per week, with social distancing and masking, on Aug. 24, 2021. Although the long-awaited return to in-person learning was met with excitement from students, teachers and parents, there was a learning curve. “Pivoting” is the term du jour of pandemic-era education, and a return to in-person learning didn’t change that.

As ACPS and Alexandria continue to work through two surges in cases that occurred at the beginning of the year due to the Delta variant and then since December with the Omicron variant, administrators, teachers and students at ACHS reflected on what this school year has been like.

Returning to in-person

The beginning of the 2021- 2022 school year was full of mixed emotions for Jennifer Lay, a chemistry and biology teacher at ACHS.

“There was a lot of optimism that we were moving forward and seeing kids in person,” Lay said. “Those first couple weeks, I cannot tell you how many times I had students in the hallway introduce [themselves] to me.”

After virtual classes, Lay said students were excited to finally meet and interact with their teachers outside of a Zoom meeting.

According to Peter Balas, principal at ACHS, preparation for the fall 2021 semester required a completely different approach than in previous years.

ACHS Principal Peter Balas

“Normally, you would have [staff] gatherings and breakfasts and lunches together. You had to think about how to keep everyone feeling safe and comfortable,” Balas said. “After the kids came back, you could feel all the different levels of excitement, but also anxiety [and] fear and confusion and questions. We had to think differently about how we were going to support kids.”

The transition was also challenging for students, many of whom had not interacted with their classmates in person for more than a year.

“It’s more the changes that resulted from two years in quarantine that I think impacted [people] more than the actual virus,” ACHS sophomore Yahney-Marie Sangare said.

Surprises and adjustments

The ongoing, constantly changing circumstances of the pandemic have in turn required constant adjustments. With the onset of the Omicron variant, Lay said ACHS staff “had to reset all over again” and reconsider safety for their students when entering a new chapter in the pandemic.

Balas said the biggest surprise was the extent of students’ mental health needs.

“We were prepared for kids being in need but the needs were way greater than what we prepared for,” Balas said. “It was a couple of months that [seemed to] last a year. Student needs and student behavior really redefined our work at the beginning of the school year like I’ve never seen.”

Senior Nikki Harris noted that the attitude of students changed dramatically during the time spent in virtual learning. Harris said that between her sophomore year and senior year, a “nihilism around learning” developed among certain students.

“In the pandemic it was pretty easy to get an A without mastering the material because of the nature of virtual learning,” Harris said. “Even if you do all the work and study, you can feel disconnected. I felt that coming back, people were not interested in the content as much or in grades.”

Harris said she believes that the liberal policy for the submission of late work adopted in the pandemic “is nice, but it’s also harmful in the long term. … It’s a lot different than it was before.”

Other students, like sophomore Gryphon Magnus, cited seemingly “arbitrary and obscure rules” around in-person learning, such as policies around hallway foot traffic patterns. Other pandemic-era changes have proven beneficial for students. Emily Milton, a student representative to the School Board, said Lunch and Learn, a 78-minute midday period for lunch and academic support, has helped her become closer with her teachers.

For Sangare, a Black Student Union officer, Lunch and Learn offered the opportunity to hold club meetings during the school day instead of after school. Sangare said the change “saved our club” because it became possible for students with after-school commitments to participate.

Yahney-Marie Sangare

“There are a lot of great things going on here [at ACHS], but you have to look and that looking process is more difficult than people can imagine,” Sangare said. “I also think it is important not to hyper-fixate on the pandemic. … We’re in a process of change and that doesn’t happen overnight. You need to have a lot of patience because change takes time.”

ACHS was not alone in facing these challenges, as schools across the country have attempted to tackle the issues associated with a return to in-person education. Beyond the challenges involved with pandemic-related stress, ACHS administrators and staff acknowledged that many students were unfamiliar with in-person school after almost two years of sitting in front of a screen.

“It was like teaching middle school kids,” Lay, who previously taught at the middle school level, said. “… We were going back to reminding them of things [about classroom behavior] that a 10th grader would roll their eyes at, but they needed that then. There were a lot of conversations about, ‘How do we meet everybody where they are right now?’”

“There should have been almost a ‘How to Do High School’ advisory for weeks as we started,” Balas said, comparing this school year to his eventful first year as principal five years ago.

To mask or not to mask?

On Jan. 15, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-VA) issued an executive order making student mask wearing discretionary with their parents. Seven Northern Virginia school divisions, including ACPS, challenged Youngkin’s executive order, stating that the governor’s decision ran counter to previous legislation passed by the Virginia General Assembly that required public schools to maintain in-person learning by following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines “to the maximum extent possible.”

“If a student is not wearing a mask, then I do ask them to put it on and I would say 100% of the time the student puts it back on their face. I have yet to have a student who has done anything else,” Lay said.

Lay said mask breaks are sometimes necessary and that Lunch and Learn, a 78-minute midday period for lunch and academic support, has helped. Milton said students have been overwhelmingly understanding and supportive of ACPS’ mask policy. However, parents are a different story.

“It was the parents who were throwing a fit [at the School Board about mandatory mask wearing]. The kids are all at school wearing [masks], no problem, no one is complaining,” Milton said.

Emily Milton

Balas said that even in lieu of a mask mandate, students without masks might experience “classmate-to-classmate correction” that “might even happen on the bus before the adults here could talk to them.”

“Our first approach is always to talk with them and offer a mask,” Balas said. “Ultimately, if there is absolute refusal, the student will go home.”

Another Youngkin policy, an email address tip line that parents can write to report concerns about mask policies or “divisive practices” being taught in schools, has also caused widespread outrage among teachers. Balas said that the governor’s tip line email address inviting parents to express concerns about the schools upset some teachers and made them feel targeted.

“We do welcome parent input and feedback on everything and I hold open meetings monthly with parents to just come in and talk about whatever is on their mind,” Balas said. “I would hope they would come to me.”

“I think all teachers would much prefer that parents and students come to us with any concerns before they go to Pete or they go to anyone else,” Lay said. “We always want to hear about it first so we can fix it.”

The path forward

ACHS counselors and social workers have been particularly busy this year.

Stacy Morris, a College and Career Center school counselor, said the eagerness and energy students brought returning to school “took some staff angst away.” However, she said students perceive that “they missed out on big events” during virtual learning and the College and Career Center experienced “an exacerbated need for social and emotional support.”

Due to the pandemic, post-secondary planning for students has become even more detailed and time-consuming than usual. The same goes for education as a whole, according to Balas.

“The [education] profession has changed, and I think it’s changed forever and I fear those effects as hiring and recruiting season comes up,” Balas said. “I fear that impact because I think it’s real and we’re seeing it all over the place with substitutes and drivers.”

In response, Balas said he is now more careful about making demands of his staff.

“Everyone is just putting so much effort in. Some days we feel like we come up short. Everyone is really tired. Still, we get up the next day despite the exhaustion,” Lay said. “It gives me hope every day to see how hard everybody’s working. I’ve been doing this over 20 years and I feel lucky to be here, but there are days when it’s really hard and I’m sure parents and kids are feeling the same thing.”

Despite all the adjustments that ACHS staff and students have had to make since transitioning back to in-person learning, despite the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, the students are what keep staff committed every day, according to Balas.

“It’s important for everyone to know too that we’re still here and coming to work because we love the kids,” Balas said. “They are absolutely wonderful and a joy to be around.”