Vincent Zakian, In-Depth Co-Editor

We’re back! As of May 3, 2021, all classes of Columbia High School students have been permitted to attend in-person school at CHS for the first time in over a year. While this experience is exciting for many students and teachers, it has come with some drawbacks. With the student body divided into two cohorts, and many students opting to stay fully virtual, most classes have fewer than ten students in (in-person) attendance. Preventative measures against COVID-19 have made things very different at CHS, with open windows in every class and stairwells designated for either ascendant or descendant travel. In the eyes of a freshman, this is the CHS experience. On the other hand, while a number of seniors are happy to finally be back in the building for one last ride, many still question why they could not have come back sooner. Others are not sure why they had to come back at all. But, perhaps hybrid learning has been the most difficult for teachers, who have had to find a way to essentially address two classes – one online and one in person – at once for the past few weeks. While the return of students (along with decreasing COVID-19 cases and a lighter mask mandate) seems like a sign of good things to come, it has not been all smooth sailing up to this point. 

The 2020-2021 CHS freshman class was the first group allowed back in the building. This event actually took place during the winter, but due to the expected issues that come with a pandemic, CHS was forced to close and reopen (for freshmen only) multiple times. Still, they have seen the most of the building out of any set of students this year, but, even now, are yet to see things running at full capacity. Ava Davis, ‘24, said, “I don’t enjoy having smaller classes. Personally, I enjoy bigger classes because I enjoy being around more people. Smaller classes do allow for teachers to get to know their students more personally, so that has made my adjustment to Columbia easier.” Davis’ sentiment is a popular one throughout the school. The current small class format seems to have complicated things for both teachers and students, but having fresh in-person interactions is a huge plus, and one of the biggest reasons CHS is open. It is especially important for freshmen, who need to form an idea of what teacher-student relationships are like in high school. 

The changes to CHS are the most foreign to seniors, who are used to the old version of the building. Jason Cotenof, ‘21, said, “Obviously the virtual portion of this year was much better than it was last year. But I get that because last year we were just thrust into it in the middle of the year. I appreciate the effort the school put in to get us back into the building.” Cotenof makes the point that CHS has shown serious improvement in the past year. But those improvements to online school may be outweighed by those of in person learning. Cotenof continued, “For me, [participating in class] is easier [in-person] than online because I am more engaged when I’m in the building.” Improved focus is arguably the most obvious benefit of the return of in-person learning as opposed to online. A 2020 News12 article disclosed that failure rates were on the rise during the era of online school. However, in person learning is still not without its shortcomings. Cotenof went on to say, “[I would improve] the way the gym classes are. Walking around the track for the whole period just seems like a waste of time. But, I get that it’s difficult [to organize].”

Earlier in the year, one of the biggest decisions for the administrators at CHS to make was the choice of the order in which to bring classes back. The eventual decision was to bring in freshmen first, followed by seniors. As previously mentioned, this part took slightly longer than expected, but a week after seniors returned, all classes were back in the building (split into two cohorts). The idea behind this order was to give freshmen the time they needed to adjust, and then give seniors the maximum amount of time to spend their last weeks in the building. While it seems like a logical decision, it predictably divided opinion. Cotenof felt that the decision was just, saying, “I think the order of returning was the way it should’ve been. Since the 9th graders haven’t been in the building yet I think that it’s fair that they got to go first. And since it’s our last year, I think that the seniors returning second was the right move.” Meanwhile, Lily Westhelle, ‘24, felt that the return policy, specifically for freshmen, could have been improved, saying, “I would have been fine if we didn’t have that stretch of weeks where it was just freshmen…”

One thing that everyone in Maplewood and South Orange can agree on is that it was never going to be easy to get students back into school. But, while it hasn’t been an entirely smooth transition back, a sense of normality is undoubtedly returning to the halls of CHS. Freshmen need to get used to the building they will dread entering for the next three years. Seniors need to enjoy their last month in it. Whether or not you’re happy to be back in the building, it seems hard to debate that after a year-long hiatus, the return of students is a breath of fresh (hopefully COVID-19 free) air.

Photos by: A. Loubier 

Design by: Charlie Hummel