Photo courtesy Olivia Eisenberg
On Thursday morning, senior Joseph Kaplan rolled out of bed, got dressed and began his daily routine. It had been over a year since Kaplan had last stepped foot inside the Whitman building, and he wanted to be prepared.
“It felt like the first day of school,” he said.
Despite the balmy 70-degree temperatures reminiscent of post-Labor Day, back-to-school Septembers, this day was not the start of the school year. Instead, it was only two weeks shy of the beginning of the fourth quarter. Kaplan was a part of the first cohort of seniors welcomed back to Whitman through MCPS’s return to school plan; the coronavirus pandemic transformed classroom learning into an entirely virtual experience since March of 2020. But for the first time in over a year, seniors and staff again walked the Whitman halls — albeit donning masks.
MCPS COVID-19 guidelines required all county schools to establish a variety of protocols to ensure a safe return to school. Signs now guide students through the hallways, placards indicate the desks available to allow for social distancing in classrooms, masks are required at all times, and as senior Olivia Eisenberg put it, “there was hand sanitizer everywhere.” Ultimately, the senior felt very safe and was not worried about catching the virus on school grounds, she said.
“It felt strange, but the protocols were necessary to nurture a safe learning environment” she said.
When seniors first began arriving at school around 8 am, staff directed them to the auditorium, where they received a Chromebook and a parking pass, if they had registered for one. First period classes started soon after, with teachers learning to balance their focus between teaching students at school and those still at home. Even though it was a challenging task at times, many teachers felt grateful to hold their first live classes since last March.
“Teaching from home has a lot of challenges that at times were very frustrating,” said social studies teacher Kenneth Heckert. “I feel rejuvenated being back in the classroom and interacting with my fellow staff and students”
Although some students and most teachers have opted to return to the school building, those in Whitman classrooms still needed to log onto Zoom to communicate with those still at home. Class sizes were small, as a majority of students had not been phased back into in-person school. Kaplan said that the transition between learning at home and in the school building was seamless.
“I felt like I was in school last week, even though this year has felt so long,” Kaplan said. “It felt like I picked up right where I left off, which was a really comforting feeling.”
During lunch, administration encouraged students to take advantage of the nice weather and eat outside. Still, students were expected to socially distance and wear masks when they were not eating. Throughout the day, students respected and adhered to the safety protocols, senior Marlo Friedland said.
“Everyone was pretty COVID-conscious, which was relieving,” she said.
Kaplan, Friedland and Eisenberg all agreed that other members of the Whitman community should not dread returning to school in the coming weeks.
“I would really encourage other people to come to school,” Friedland said. “The teachers were all so eager to interact with their students, and it was a really nice welcome back to school.”
Additional reporting by Grace Corbett and Lily Freeman.