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‘A really difficult year’: Howard County high school seniors react to returning to classrooms for hybrid learning

This school year hasn’t been easy.

That’s what seniors at Howard County high schools have said about their final year of school, and it’s not hard to imagine why.

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The coronavirus pandemic caused school buildings to remain shuttered for nearly a year, canceled events like homecoming and prom, and diminished the fulfillment of finally being on the top of the high school food chain.

As hybrid learning has begun in the county, however, some of the district’s high school seniors decided to return to classrooms for the last few months of the academic year. Among some of those seniors were about 60 members of the Long Reach High Class of 2021, who woke up extra early Thursday to gather in their school’s parking lot and watch the sunrise together on the first day of fourth quarter.

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“Even though it’s early, I’m really happy we are able to have something for ourselves,” said Payton Holmes, co-president of the Class of 2021. “It’s been a really difficult year. It was difficult to not be able to see each other because we’re all so close.”

About 44% of the district’s 18,000 high school students chose to return to school buildings instead of remaining in the fully virtual format. One of those students, Rashad Russell, said the main reason he wanted to come back for in-person learning was for his academics.

Russell, a senior at Wilde Lake High, is taking Advanced Placement physics and Gifted & Talented engineering this semester — two challenging classes that he said were extra difficult in a virtual format.

“Oh my goodness, they are a hassle,” Russell said. “I just wanted to get more help. The virtual wasn’t really helping me. I needed that hands-on help. It was a big difference when I went back in person.”

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Holmes also returned in person for academic reasons. Instead of returning to Long Reach High, Holmes came back for in-person learning in March at the Applications and Research Laboratory, where she is taking a physical rehabilitation class.

“It’s a really hard class to do virtually,” Holmes said. “Going in person was definitely helpful. I’ve already seen a difference in me learning and memorizing more since I’ve been back.”

Russell’s friend Nazeer England, who is also a senior at Wilde Lake, said he was excited when the hybrid model was announced so he could focus better on his work.

Learning virtually, England said, there are a lot of “distractions” — like YouTube, video games and the fridge — that can easily entice students to veer off task.

“I wanted to focus clearly on my work. There were too many distractions at home,” England said. “Now that I’m in person, I can focus on just my work.”

For Dylan Jock, a senior at Glenelg High, returning was a way to regain a sense of normalcy.

Jock’s favorite part of being back in the building happened on his first day on April 1. As a member of the Gladiators on the Horizon mentor program, he gave a tour of the high school to a group of a dozen ninth graders on their first day.

Jock remembers receiving the tour when he was new to high school and was excited to be on the other end of it.

“It was really cool to be able to give that tour because that’s the reason I wanted to do the program in the first place,” Jock said. “That tour my freshman year is a good memory.”

Similar to Holmes and Russell, Jock is glad to be back in person for one of his toughest classes — computer manufacturing.

He said his teacher, Raymond Gerstner, did a good job in the virtual format, but that after just one day in the classroom Jock could feel the benefits of being back.

“It felt great to be back in that class,” Jock said. “Mr. Gerstner is a really extroverted teacher. He was so great at doing it [virtually] that most kids would turn their cameras on just out of respect for him. But it was great to be in that class in person. It felt a lot more normal and interactive.”

While the sunrise event at Long Reach was just a small gathering at one school in the county, Principal Joshua Wasilewski said it was “nice to just do something” for his senior class.

“It’s been so hard for them,” Wasilewski said. “They are an amazing group of kids. My heart just breaks for them. Last year, our senior class had at least homecoming and three-quarters of a year. We were hopeful that things would be different this year, but they weren’t. I’m so proud of how our senior class has handled this year.”

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