To go or not to go? Austin high schoolers weigh threat of COVID against more isolation as school year nears
Back when being a freshman in high school meant noisy hallways teeming with teenagers and weekends overflowing with dances and games and first dates, Cassidy Miller, 14, had things to look forward to in ninth grade.
But now, as Travis County schools delay opening and attempt to keep the coronavirus from spreading, Cassidy imagines high school to be a warped version of the all-American experience she excitedly anticipated.
Masks on everyone, isolated lunches, Plexiglass dividers, fear of the virus. No pep rallies, no fun.
Cassidy wants to go anyway.
"It's hard not knowing what you're missing out on and feeling like you're not a part of something," she said. "I miss all my friends, a lot."
Weighing isolation against risk
Teenagers and young adults are believed to spread the illness more easily than their younger counterparts, but there are also compelling arguments suggesting the emotional and academic costs of online-only classes could be disproportionately high for older kids.
And so for their parents, the decision on whether to let them go to high school in person or keep them home for online classes is fraught with contradictions.
Pitting academic success and their own mental health against the risk of exposing themselves and their families, older students are in a lose-lose scenario.
"It's such an unnatural and unfair situation to put young people in," said Kate Volti, Cassidy's stepmom, who wants to see a better pandemic situation before she feels comfortable with Cassidy returning in person.
Outside the social aspect, Cassidy also says she needs a collaborative classroom and plenty of structure in order to do well in her classes, which she said was lacking in the spring when classes were online.
Ariela Choiniere, a 16-year-old Austin junior in the marching band, is willing to go online because she believes school isn't safe enough yet—but she's also hoping to find a way to get around it a little bit.
"If there's one day where band says I have to be there, I'm pretty sure [the administration] won't mind if I'm there in school for that day," said Ariela, who faced challenges with the online technology last semester, in part because of her dyslexia.
Considering other kids
Some households also have the complicating factor of younger siblings.
Volti and her husband, Mike, plan to avoid day care and in-person school for their younger son and daughter, ages 8 and 3.
But their learning "pods"—in which a handful of families come to a quarantine agreement and agree to only socialize and learn with each other—would only remain an option if Cassidy doesn't attend school in person, because the other families say they worry about her being exposed and then putting them at risk, Volti said.
"I totally get it. Nobody's doing anything that's wrong or illogical," Volti said. "But it's a really tough situation where it feels like the best interests of one kid is sort of at odds with the best interests of another kid."
Then there's the disconcerting notion of a high school experience—Cassidy calls it "scary"—that will look very different from what students are hoping to recapture by going back in person right now.
"High school and the social dynamics of high school are ingrained in the fabric of our society. We're fascinated, we cling to it. And that's just been turned on its head," Volti said. "Since we can't achieve normal, is the benefit of what is left of that experience really worth the risk?"
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