Students entering the school. For many underclassmen, this year is a daunting introduction to the high school environment. Illustration by Sophie Locker.

On September 1 2021, Portland Public Schools reopened its doors for full in-person learning for the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. For many students, this was a welcome—though perhaps anxiety-inducing—return to something resembling normalcy. However, for underclassmen this reopening isn’t a homecoming, but their first foray into the high school environment. Given that the last uninterrupted in-person school year for incoming freshmen was the sixth grade, there’s the potential for difficulty when it comes to academic and social development, as well as students’ ability to adapt to the often turbulent environment after spending so long online. 

A significant concern is a possible knowledge gap with incoming students—freshmen in particular are potentially more likely to have missing pieces when it comes to their education since they spent major chunks of their middle school years online. Academic structures largely rely on the premise that students have met certain learning benchmarks in previous years, forming a foundation of knowledge that teachers are able to build upon. However, the disruptive nature of the switch to distance learning as well as the inherent difficulties of online school mean that many students struggled to meet the same academic level they might have in a standard school year. Freshman Jailyn McCord describes her own experience with these delays: “I couldn’t really learn anything online,” she explains. “It’s been good to be back in school to have teachers and things like that. It’s definitely helped me, but it’s hard to get back in the flow of things.”

The unique context of this school year may necessitate a shift in approach for teachers if students are to be able to get back on track for the rest of their high school careers. “I feel like I have a huge gap,” Jailyn says, “and it’s hard to catch up sometimes when the teacher expects you to know something, and then you just don’t.” This gap she describes means teachers are now tasked with playing catch-up for a year and a half’s worth of stunted learning on top of meeting typical required standards.

The question of how exactly educators will do this is still up in the air. When asked what could be done to make the transition easier for freshmen, Jailyn identified a need for leniency when it comes to deadlines. This makes sense; incoming freshmen are used to an academic environment characterized by a reduced course load and a limited emphasis on hard deadlines. Many freshmen likely have not yet had the opportunity to build the skills needed to manage a standard high school course load. Though online learning was grueling in its own right, the skills it cultivates are not a one-to-one match to the ones learned in a real-life school environment. Any student can attest to how functioning in a school environment adds a whole new layer of both benefits and challenges to the academic experience—something many students missed formative years of. 

Though the structure of online learning can’t be fully maintained, it may be beneficial for teachers to adopt approaches that acknowledge this unique experience. Underclassmen will need time and tolerance to adapt. Easing students more slowly into work with an understanding of the gaps created by online learning could help make this transition less difficult, although that does present new challenges when it comes to meeting standard benchmarks. 

The challenges facing incoming students and educators alike this year are unprecedented, with no real pre-existing guidance on how best to deal with them. In this precarious era, the short and long term impacts of the pandemic on students is yet to be fully understood. At the very least, it can be hoped that measures can be taken to make the transition as easy as possible.