As students walked into Jahdai Jeffords' classroom for the first time, he greeted them with an assignment: "Say something!"
Jeffords, who teaches Spanish and Latin American studies at Carver High School in Winston-Salem, N.C., had been teaching remotely since March 2020. When school opened back up almost a year later on February 15th, he had never met, or in some cases, even seen many of the students he had been teaching.
To get over any first-day jitters, he rigged up a game: Don't introduce yourself by name.
"I'd say, 'Wait! Don't tell me!' And try to guess their voices," Jeffords explains. "Some of them had such unique voices [over Zoom] that I could tell, but others never really spoke, so it felt like having new students in front of me."
Similar reunions are playing out in classrooms across the country, where after months of seeing their students only on computer screens, teachers are finally getting their chance to meet — and teach — their students face-to-face.
Leslie Montufar, a sophomore in Jeffords' class, remembers her first day well; she was just as excited as her teacher to be back in class.
"I walked in and he was standing on a high chair," she says with a grin. "I was just like, 'Oh my gosh, Mr. Jeffords, like, here we go! I already know this is gonna be one of the best classes.' "
Leslie was eager to get back to the familiar routines of school life. It was tough to stay motivated, she says, while learning virtually.
"I'm a really social person," she explains. "Once you get used to waking up and then logging into class, it gets really tiring just sitting all day in your pajamas not doing anything. But waking up, having something to get ready for, seeing old friends – oh my gosh!' "
Amy Barksdale, who teaches first grade in Silver Spring, Md., knew what her students looked like, since most of them kept their cameras on. But there was one surprising difference when she actually met them in person.
"When I saw the first kid walk in, I really forgot how small they were," she says, laughing. Video classes, she learned, don't convey height very well. "They were just so little. And they even looked at me and they were like, 'Wow! you're taller than I thought.' "
When Arcola Elementary School reopened in person in mid-March, Barksdale's students had to adjust to a very different classroom. The reading corner was gone. The carpet squares the kids usually sat on? Packed away.
And for the first time, Barksdale had to encourage her first-graders not to share. "An aspect for social and emotional learning that they really need to gain is how to share and how to collaborate," she says. "And right now, the safest thing for them is to not share their materials."
But she says her students have adapted quickly. After all, as first-graders, almost all of their school experience has been colored by the pandemic.
"It's just something that is their new normal," Barksdale explains. "Because they are so young, it's not something that's so different for them."
On The Other Hand
Of course, not all students are back in class. According to a U.S. Education Department school survey released last week, 22% of elementary students and 26% percent of middle school students are still learning completely virtually.
And, looking ahead, it's unclear how traditional schooling will transform and expand after the pandemic.
A recent NPR/IPSOS poll shows that 29% of parents polled are considering keeping their kids in remote learning indefinitely. This could be for a myriad of reasons, such as home being a better environment to focus in, or not having to feel the impacts of an unsupportive education system.
Neven Holland, who teaches fourth grade at Shelby County Schools in Memphis, Tenn., returned to the classroom for hybrid teaching in the beginning of March. Though he says seeing his students' faces again brings him joy, he doesn't know if teaching the students in front of him — as well as those online — is feasible for the long-term.
"I've met a lot of challenging things in my life – graduate school, and climbed a mountain," says Holland. "This definitely is the hardest thing I've ever done... trying to teach students virtually and in person through a mask."
Holland says that after two weeks of this teaching model, he's exhausted. But, he recognizes the importance of building the student-teacher relationship, and knows he can maintain it both in-person and online.
"Kids don't learn from someone they don't like," he explains. "I've just learned to tap into their desires, how they want to see themselves, and their interests... and that works virtually or in person."
Rhonda Higgins, who, like Jeffords, teaches high school in Winston-Salem, N.C., is happy to have her students back. But, she adds quickly, it's not the same.
"I feel like we've gone backwards in education," she says. "Now the desks are in rows, you know, spaced out six feet apart – it's just really sterile. With this form of in-person learning, I don't know that they're getting a good education."
Nevertheless, Higgins believes that in-person learning is better than being completely virtual when it comes to the mental health and social development of her students. "The social-emotional needs of our students, and staff – me, myself – it is critical. We need that connection," she says. "These kids, they benefit from being back in the building."
Alice Letona began teaching her third-graders in-person last week at a dual-immersion school for English- and Spanish-speaking students in Santa Cruz, Calif. A week before she returned to the classroom, she shared a message for her future self:
"If [there's] anything that this year has taught me, it's flexibility. These kids have been so resilient during this time. And resiliency is a big part of getting through life. Get through it, and just enjoy the time that you have with them."