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What happens when the unprecedented becomes precedented?
As Kansas schools wrap up the first month of a second year of pandemic learning, they’re still struggling with many of the same challenges as last year, even as they’re left with fewer tools to address them.
But for Wichita area high school students, returning for another COVID-19 school year means the virus has become a regular part of their school experiences, whether that’s in the lunch, locker or band rooms.
The Wichita Beacon connected with three high school students to see what’s different this school year and get a glimpse at how pandemic Wichita went back to school.
Safety in numbers
The most pressing item on Zionna Giddens’ mind Monday morning was an upcoming biology test.
Way behind that test and the other ninth grade worries that come with starting high school was COVID-19.
It’s not that Giddens forgot the pandemic — “These make sure of it,” she said, pointing to a mask she was getting ready to wear walking into Wichita East High School. It isn’t that she’s become apathetic to the virus, either.
But COVID-19 just isn’t as big a concern, at least not like it was in the first few months of the pandemic, Giddens said.
“Six feet (of social distancing) really got moved out of the way,” she said. “I can sit next to people and no one freaks out, or I can cough over there and nobody is staring me down.”
Masks, then, are the most visible reminder that schools are still really struggling with mitigating the virus, even if strict compliance with Wichita Public Schools’ mask mandate varies between students, Giddens said. She admitted she often has to remind herself to push up her mask after it droops down below her nose.
If anything, Giddens said she feels safer this school year, now that it’s easier to blend into a crowd.
“When I walk home, I don’t feel like it’s just me, myself and I,” she said. “I feel like I can go home with any groups of students heading the same way and feel safe that way.”
Another shot at champions
Dylan Christopher sat in the high school locker room, mentally preparing to play for the Maize High School boys varsity soccer team earlier in September.
Before that, he completed all the other physical preparations — eating healthy, getting enough sleep the night before and making sure he was nowhere near any of his fellow students.
“You have to do your own social distancing, even if it’s not mandated or required, just to make sure that you don’t get sick and let the team down,” Christopher said. Maize High students are encouraged but not required to wear masks.
The school’s boys soccer team struggled to field its full varsity roster last season. Players were benched because of quarantine, isolation and other COVID-19 mitigation measures.
That was the case when the squad, down a few key players, reached but lost the 5A state championship last November. Their absence left a “what if?” that Christopher said he and other players hope to answer this season, mainly by making sure they hold themselves to higher COVID-19 mitigation standards than their nonathlete peers.
Off the field and inside the school, COVID-19 is “on the back burner,” Christopher said, with students happier more than anything else to at least see each others’ faces again.
For now, Christopher and his teammates are trying to win out the rest of the season in their bid to return to the state playoffs.
They’ll just have to count COVID-19 among their opponents.
‘Hope nothing changes’
Carlos Sosa is part of an exclusive club of high school students at Wichita South High School.
As part of the class of 2022, he’s a member of the only group of students who knows what a full, normal year of high school should look like.
So far, the school year is looking as regular as it can be, he said.
“A few things are different, like having to sanitize things or having to wear a mask or getting tested a couple of times because of close contacts (with confirmed COVID-19 cases), but it feels normal to me,” Sosa said. “I feel happy to be back in school.
“Better than being at home,” he added.
He’s also a member of the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council, which provides district decision-makers with student feedback on issues that affect teenagers. Part of that has been pushing for mask requirements so the rest of the school experience can feel as normal as possible.
For Sosa, being a senior means setting a standard for younger students — to an extent, he said. After all, seniors are busy with preparing for life after graduation.
In the meantime, Sosa said he’s trying to keep busy with his school activities, and he’s especially looking forward to drumming in the high school pep band at basketball games in the winter.
“In the summer, it almost seemed like school would shut down again or that there would be no football season,” Sosa said. “It still feels like that sometimes, but it’s about taking it day by day — show up to school, get your work done, go to practice, then come back the next day and do it again and hope nothing changes.”