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Some students are fine trading distance learning for masks as they return to school full time

More than 1.5 billion students started distance learning due to the COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020. Eighteen months later, September 2021 will be the beginning of the first school year to be fully in person with masks on.

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Kellogg Middle School students return to campus for the first day back on Sept. 1. A state mandate requires all students and staff to wear masks while at school. As the back-to-school season begins students have mixed feelings about returning to fully in-person classes while wearing masks. Some are anxious about socializing again, while others are afraid of the new covid variants.

¨I feel like it's a little risky because COVID isn't away yet and there's a new variant," Rostana Johar, a former David Douglas High School senior, said. "I think it's dangerous to have everyone go back, especially that Douglas has a lot of people."

Johar is going to Portland State University to study biology. PSU requires everyone to wear masks at all times on campus. Being vaccinated is also a requirement for all staff members and eligible students. Johar is aware of the fact that her college freshmen year will be different, but just like most students, she's hopeful COVID-19 won't affect her college experience for more than a year.

David Douglas School District will return to fully in-person learning this year. The district won't offer distance learning except for those with critical medical conditions that put them in a high-risk category. Portland Public Schools has taken the same approach.

"I would have liked it if there was an online option, just for those who had a better time with it versus in-person," Parker Fearl, a DDHS junior, said.

According to the University of the Potomac, a small, private college in Washington, D.C., just 26% of online students claim to learn better online than in a classroom. Oregon has seen some parents lash out at school leaders and protest the governor's K-12 school mask mandate, but PMG PHOTO: NARDIN ISHAK - Rostana Johar works in a medical office while wearing a mask. Johar will also be required to wear a mask on campus this fall as she heads to college, while K-12 students will also wear masks while at school all day.Portland students are excited about slowly returning to normal, even if it's with masks on.

"It was definitely different, but I didn't mind it because I still went back and saw people,¨Johar said about her experience with the hybrid model during her senior year. ¨It was weird because I am not used to it, but still better than nothing."

As for Johar's experience as a senior, she thinks it could have been better.

"For seniors, I feel like they could have done a lot more to make it more special whether that's online or safely in person,¨ Johar said. "I was a junior when it all started. I thought it would die down after the vaccine came out. I definitely didn't expect to go to college with COVID still being a thing. I don't think it will affect my four-year plan but definitely the first year."

The college student said her freshman year won't be a "normal year," noting her orientation was done online and health restrictions are impacting how classes are taught, but adds, "I don't think we can do anything about it."

Ella Johnson, a senior at Saint Mary's Academy — a private, all-girls school in Portland — will also be going back to full-time in-person school, but not for the first time. Last school year, after the governor's orders to reopen schools, Saint Mary's started a hybrid model along with the distance learning option, and later offered a full-in-person learning option. Masks were a requirement for everyone and all staff members were required to be vaccinated. Masks, required vaccines, monthly evaluations, monthly COVID-19 testing for all students, and contact tracing are a few of the many protocols the students had to follow.

¨It was like a whole intense system to keep everyone safe,¨Johnson said. ¨And it did. We had no COVID cases.¨

Johnson, just like many other students, is excited to be back in person as she had a hard time with Zoom classes.

While education agencies and experts are still learning about the impacts of online education compared with in-person classes, pre-pandemic research suggests students learn better in-person.

Research published in 2016 in the Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness found that out of more than 1,200 9th grade students who failed algebra and tried to take online courses to make up the credits, "students in online credit recovery reported that the course was more difficult, were less likely to recover credit, and scored lower on an algebra posttest."

Johnson reported similar struggles. ¨I really liked being in-person because for me I can't really study in a room all day doing Zoom classes and not actually interacting with people,¨ Johnson said. "The teachers were not really prepared to teach online. In-person I got more information and the teachers were connecting with us more. It's also easier to ask questions in person rather than write a whole email.¨

Mary Burns is a technology and professional development specialist at Education Development Center who helps schools design learning programs. Burns said students prefer learning in a classroom setting for a multitude of reasons.

¨They don't like learning alone; they don't like spending so much time in front of a screen; they find being online 'distracting'; and they see online learning as 'low quality', 'a dumbed-down version of face-to-face learning', 'an imitation of school' and 'lonely,'" Burns wrote in a blog post published by UK FIET, the Education and Development Forum. "It's not simply that students miss their friends — they do — they especially miss being part of a community of learners. They miss the experience and structure of school and the place-based nature of learning."

Nardin Ishak, a student at David Douglas High School, is one of three summer interns working for Amplify, a Pamplin Media Group project aimed at elevating the voices of students from communities historically underrepresented in local newsrooms. Contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

This story is possible because of Amplify, a community storytelling initiative of Pamplin Media Group and Care Oregon. Amplify supports summer internships for high school journalists in the Portland metro region and aims to elevate the voices of student journalists from historically underrepresented groups, such as communities of color, low-income residents and others.

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