The courtyard at Berkeley High School pre-pandemic. Students are currently in a holding pattern as they finish their 11th month of distance learning. Photo: Nancy Rubin

As the debate about reopening continues to take shape around them, Berkeley High School students remain in a holding pattern as they finish their 11th month of distance learning. While many elementary students will go back to a five-day schedule of in-person learning starting March 29, a reopening plan at the secondary level has yet to be announced.

“Every day in class, students ask my teacher if we’re going back.” — Isabella Ingersoll, BHS senior

Over the weekend, California issued new guidelines that make it easier for schools to reopen, permitting three feet of distance between students when six feet is not possible. Berkeley’s health department followed suit, adopting the new policy. But the district and teachers’ union have not yet made changes to the current, tentative hybrid plan.

Parents, guardians, school directors and teachers have made their views known about getting back on campuses. But, so far, little has been heard from high-school students themselves about how they are feeling about reopening.

“Us students aren’t in on the conversations. It’s the admin talking about us and not necessarily with us,” said Isabella Ingersoll, a senior at Berkeley High and co-managing editor of Berkeley High’s student newspaper The Jacket.

With so much at stake, students are longing for certainty in uncertain times. “Every day in class, students ask my teacher if we’re going back,” Ingersoll said.

To hear from students, Berkeleyside interviewed eight high schoolers and partnered with a group of ninth-grade English teachers who had assigned argumentative essays about reopening. The quotes highlighted in this story come from essays that students chose to share with Berkeleyside. We’ve excerpted their arguments so readers can hear from students in their own words.

No easy decisions, but a consensus on what’s at stake

While Berkeley High students have a range of perspectives on reopening, many agree on what’s at stake.

Students’ social lives have dwindled. Many are lonely at best and suffering more severe mental-health issues at worst. Without human interaction, school has felt perfunctory.

“To me, it feels like I left my relationships behind a year ago. Now, I’m just getting my credits and getting out of here,” said Lucas Kathol-Voilleque, a 12th grader.

Simply getting out of bed and onto Zoom can be a challenge. High-achieving straight-A students found themselves nearly failing classes.

Even those whose grades have improved because they found the workload easier to manage say they miss the vibrancy of in-person learning.

“Personally, my grades have gotten better in distance learning. But going back to school would help me be more engaged. I would be more passionate about what I was doing,” said Taha Rajput, a ninth grader.

At the same time, no one wants school reopening to contribute to the spread of COVID-19. Some students think the herculean effort to reopen safely will be worth it. Others, more cautious or more resigned, think the high school should wait until the fall to reopen fully. Their voices inject nuance and compassion in a trying and emotional debate.

‘2D pixels on my screen are not enough’

The toll of social isolation has hit teenagers especially hard. Students saw their social worlds shrink, hours with friends replaced by hours on the computer. The result on their health has been serious, with emergency room visits for mental health reasons rising 31% compared to the previous year.

“It’s been hard to manage — the isolation, not seeing people, all that,” said one student, who told Berkeleyside that his depression hit hardest in the summer and reared back up in the winter. “2D pixels on my screen are not enough to satisfy my social/emotional needs,” wrote Cadie, a ninth grader, in her argumentative essay on reopening.

“There’s a real risk to keeping schools closed in terms of mental health,” said Jack Wilan, a Berkeley High senior.

Other students recognize the toll on mental health, but don’t think reopening schools is the panacea some have made it out to be.

“A lot of people think that the simple solution to mental health is opening schools. It wouldn’t be as easy as it sounds,” Ingersoll said.

Adeline Praskins, a junior, said it feels like some have used mental health “as a justification for reopening” instead of advocating for the supports that students need: more counseling opportunities, more flexibility on assignments.

Is going back too early worth the risk?

“I would love to be able to reopen, but I also think that it’s always better to be more cautious than to rush ahead,” said Talulla Miller-Ross, a junior at Berkeley High. Miller-Ross worries most about the chance that COVID-19 spreads through the high school and “having to go back to square one.” She is looking forward to her senior year, and she doesn’t want COVID-19 to interfere.

The risks, as some students see them, are even a few cases of COVID-19 that come from school reopening. They know Berkeley High, these students say, and they worry about packed hallways and kids pulling down their masks. And then there’s lunch.

For others, the pay-offs are worth it.

One student has taken the task of deciding whether he should go back to school particularly seriously. He knows the risk of the disease better than anyone, as his mom passed away from COVID-19 in September. But, after reading the science and listening to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical advisor, he took away a clear message: opening schools is safe.

“I think it would be better and safe for students, as long as kids follow the guidelines,” he said.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...