The hallway was silent. Colorful, lively posters hung on the walls, but there was less life in the room than might be expected for the first day back at school.
I walked down the hallway of the school with one of the school’s armed guardians – and we mused over the silence of the morning.
I have covered the first day of school for years and it has always been a part of my job that I have enjoy; there is a special part in my reporter’s heart for news about school and kids and the first day of school is usually marked by the noisy bustle of excited children.
There are loud cheers as the students call out to their friends as they pass in the hallway, there is the scuffle of tennis shoes on newly polished floors,and the sounds of teachers speaking loudly over their energetic students as they attempt to herd their little flock. There are the sounds of laughter, excited chatter, shouts and greetings – all proof that “here, there be children.”
This year, there was none of those old, familiar sounds.
I have never covered a first day back at school that was quite so hauntingly silent as this year’s first day.
The school guardian and I turned a corner, coming into a common room that branched into several classrooms – I could easily imagine how, in any other year, this common area and its connecting classrooms were a hubbub of noise.
Instead, it was quiet.
As we stepped into one of the classrooms, my camera ready in my hand, I was greeted with the sight of a teacher and her small collection of students. They recited their ABCs, three little voices following along behind their teacher’s instruction. Almost all the desks in the room were empty.
This was a sight I found in almost every other classroom in this school and the others that I visited: teachers ready to teach, but no children in the classroom.
There was also the connection issue for the remote and virtual students.
It’s a wonderful idea – kids being able to attend a real-time class from the socially-distanced haven of their own living room; if you are learning from home, there is less risk of bringing home a virus or bug.
But Florida’s Gadsden County is not known for its high-speed internet and lightning fast load times. Even though Gadsden County is only a short drive west of the capitol city of Tallahassee, it has been much-overlooked by internet service providers.
Many residents of the county have internet speeds that are only a small step above dial-up…if they are lucky enough to have internet at all.
There is also the issue of income levels in Gadsden County, which is a vastly poor region compared to the neighboring Tallahassee. With a large population of migrant farm working families and low-income African-American families, not everyone can afford to own a laptop or computer – much less pay for monthly internet service.
So while the concept of remote and virtual education was a glittering one in the COVID-19 world, children and parents of Gadsden County began their first day of remote school by discovering how disconnected their county was from the modern internet-ready world.
Teachers sat at their desks, waiting for their remote students to come online, staring at a blank screen without any little faces to greet them. If a child was able to log onto their virtual class, the connection was faltering, blurry and disorienting, leaving teachers and students at a loss.
All in all, covering this year’s school reopening felt like an ominous warning, but of what, I am unsure.
Is this a horrific realization that the life we knew may never return? A bleak reminder that the world we knew as ‘normal’ was so easily disrupted by a sole virus?
I am, generally, an optimistic person when it comes to COVID-19 – I have frequently remarked that “life will return to normal…it has to.”
And yet, standing in the barely-occupied classrooms, watching one child sit at a lonesome desk without any classmates around him, and teachers waiting silently at their desk in the hopes that their virtual students will log online for school – I truly began to doubt that life will be “normal” anytime soon.
At the very least, this year’s launching of the school year is a heartbreaking reminder of how much further we have to go until ‘normal’ is normal again.