It’s been nearly a year since Bridget Donovan stepped foot inside Framingham High School, and when she heard about plans this winter to finally bring back students, she joked that she might have trouble finding her way around the building.
“I’m going to be like a freshman and get all lost,” she said, laughing. “I feel like I haven’t been to school since, like, 300 years ago.”
Donovan is among the high school seniors chronicling this school year as part of GBH News’ COVID and the Classroom series. Most students at her school have been learning remotely since the COVID shutdown last March. Now, as case numbers drop but the threat of the virus remains, Framingham High is preparing to bring students back.
“I’m walking on the edge of a knife, shall we say. I’m excited because I want to get back to normal and there’s a bit of trepidation, I think, on everyone’s part, because we’ve never done this before,” said Jeff Convery, vice principal for the senior class at Framingham High. “I just want everyone to be safe.”
That concern over safety has turned the hybrid learning start date into a moving target. When school started in September, school officials planned to bring back students in October. But as case numbers climbed leaving Framingham in the red zone, the date was pushed off to January, then February, and now March 3.
The city’s positivity rate is trending downward. The high school’s faculty and staff have access to weekly COVID testing, students will be encouraged to take part in an optional pool testing program and classrooms are outfitted with air filters.
Still, not everyone is ready to return. About half of the school’s students have opted to continue the year learning remotely. The rest — about 1,350 students — will be divided into two cohorts that attend classes on different days. They’ll be walking into a transformed school: Desks are set up in rows to encourage students to face forward, arrows indicate one-way traffic along the corridors and QR codes on desks and outside bathrooms will facilitate contact tracing in the event of a positive case.
“A lot of rules — far more rules than were in place when they walked out of this building on March 10th last year,” said Convery. “We necessarily have had to remove a lot of the socializing that happens naturally and that, I would argue, is a huge part of the high school experience.”
Remote school has taken a toll, he said, especially among students juggling work, caring for siblings or travelling to visit — and tragically, sometimes bury — loved ones. The number of students with failing grades has increased, he said, not just at Framingham High, but in schools across the state.
“Anxiety, depression, worry, stress, it’s all going to have an effect,” said Convery. “The challenges are countless that are facing our students. No one student fits into the same box as another, but when I trace it all back, it’s all one way or another related what this pandemic has brought to us.”
Uncertainty is about the only thing students and staff can count on this year, but the promise of vaccines and the reopening of the school leaves Convery hopeful that students, particularly seniors, will experience at least a taste of a normal school year.
“I want a senior week. And I want it to be fun and exciting and celebratory. And I want it to end at Bowditch Field with them all throwing their hats up in the air,” he said. “That’s the dream.”
Writing and reporting by Stephanie Leydon, video by Emily Judem