Students Returning to Campus: Is It Worth It?


Kealia Victorino

For the first time in nine months, high school students are returning to campus to take supervised distance learning classes. Those who signed up were placed in cohorts with about 10 students to attend their scheduled zoom classes. Since COVID-19 in the East Bay is facing new high daily death rates, Head of School Crystal Land states that safety is the School’s top priority. 

Individuals on campus are required to participate in COVID-19 saliva testing every Monday. Land states that these pooled tests track and interrupt any positive cases. Campus modifications, such as the addition of HEPA air filters and MERV-13 filters in standard ventilation units have been implemented. Windows and doors are open at all times, and new tents will allow students to take class or eat outdoors. 

A daily completion of the Magnus Daily Health Screening App is an additional requirement for on-campus participation. On the app, guardians are required to fill out a form with questions concerning their student’s health and whether they have had exposure to positive COVID-19 cases. 

In a Zoom meeting introducing the plans to re-open, Land referenced a Swiss cheese analogy (pictured to the right) to illustrate the various protective measures that are implemented. Saya McKenna, interim Upper School Head, added that the School is approaching the situation in a “staged and deliberate fashion so that [they] are prioritizing health and wellness, and also supporting academic engagement.”

The most notable aspect of the School’s in-person learning is the cohorts. These are smaller groups within the larger alphabetical Green and Gold categories. On AC days (days with A, B and C blocks), students will go home at lunch to take their remaining classes in a distance learning format. McKenna says, “This allows for a flighted incubation period, reduces the density of students on campus, and allows us to host more students on campus over time.”

Students will take classes in small groups based on grade level, where they will be “primarily confined to a single classroom.” Some classes, like dance, will take place outside. McKenna adds, “Our hope is that over time, we will have more and more opportunities for students to have those kinds of pullouts.” These pullouts, where students leave their designated classroom, may also occur if a student has a test; however, the logistics have yet to be determined. 

Some members of the community have expressed concerns about speaking among students in different classes. McKenna addressed those worries, saying, “I know it sounds very complicated and puzzling, and yet I’ve seen it work… It is sort of serenely musical.” She acknowledges that while it may not be for “highly distracted or highly self-conscious students,” it has not been a problem for any of the students who have participated so far. 

These Zoom rooms will be staffed by a combination of vibrant teacher assistants (some of whom are actually Head-Royce alumnus) and teachers. The School hopes to match teacher TAs to the grade levels they teach to encourage opportunities for connection. However, in these initial weeks, there may not be a great deal of interaction with teachers on campus.

For some high school students who have returned to campus this month, this small chance for social interaction is worth the risk. After her first day back, senior Sophie Coutu commented, “I loved seeing peers and teachers on campus. Being on campus was just a good feeling and got me up in the morning.” She added with a laugh, “I actually put shoes ─birks, of course─ on my feet.” 

Other incentives for re-entry include social and emotional wellbeing. McKenna shares, “We have learned, in watching the middle school start in this mode, that students have largely benefited and profited from the return to campus. Even though it’s just getting them out of their bedroom and into a classroom, a physical change of scenery and some proximity to other students has made a really big difference.” 

Other students are opting to continue taking classes from the safety of their homes. Senior Arun Parwani remarked, “COVID cases in Alameda county have been rising since late last year, and I’d rather not put myself in a position where I could be infected if I could avoid it. Plus, when I was at school for activities (for example, senior day) people weren’t really social distancing, so that’s further deterring me.” 

These plans for on-campus learning will extend from January to mid-February. Students may choose to return to campus for the second phase after break. Parwani says, “I think if COVID cases subside enough such that we are able to have proper in school learning, I would definitely return to school… Having an in-person classroom environment where we can learn through a variety of interactive and collaborative activities, as opposed to a Zoom lecture, is something that would be really beneficial to me.”

Land shares a similar hope for the future of on-campus learning. According to Land, although “It’s lonely right now… it has been very joyful to see our lower school students on campus.” McKenna shared, “We are starting where we can, and building from there.” For the hundreds of students and teachers alike in the high school, these plans are a very promising start to the new year.