Pittsfield high school

Many kids going back to school across the Berkshires said they are relieved to be leaving virtual school behind.

For the last year and a half, Chris Sunn barely stepped foot into the classrooms at McCann Technical School in North Adams.

On his last day of summer, going back into school “doesn’t feel real,” he said. “I haven’t been in the building too much in awhile. Going back in, I can’t say I am too sure if I know what I am going into anymore.”

Since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, Sunn was in school remotely and went into the building only to take the MCAS, he said.

Now, the high school junior is vaccinated. As he geared up for in-person school, he was most looking forward to socializing. “Just seeing people,” he said, and interacting with those he hasn’t seen in more than a year.

He’s also happy to be running cross-country again. “It feels really good. I feel much more healthy than I was during quarantine,” he said.

As students like Sunn are going back to school, many said they feel relieved to be leaving virtual school behind and are looking forward to the social aspects of school, while some students felt worried about COVID-19.

“I’m excited to go back,” said West Dews, freshman at Wahconah Regional High School in Dalton, “but on the other hand I don’t want things to go how they did last year because it was like we’re gonna go in two weeks later and then we get called out. It was like a mental roller coaster. You never know if you’re going to be in school or out of school and then you don’t get to see your friends. It was just tough.”

Dews is hoping school stays in-person this year. Virtual school last year was hard, he said.

“You’d just turn on your computer and sit there,” he said. “And then half the time we didn’t even learn that much. It was just assignment to assignment — you turn it in and then forget about it.”

Justinnajah Brown, a sophomore at Pittsfield High School, shared similar thoughts.

“I like in-person better because if you have a problem or don’t understand — I mean you can ask the teacher over the computer too but it’s better to [go straight to them,]” Brown said. “I just like being able to be in a full, working, productive classroom. Like actually sitting at a desk and not sitting at home.”

Grace Swartout, 17, of West Stockbridge, is a senior at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, which started class in late August.

“It’s really great to be learning in a classroom again,” Swartout said. “I feel like I can pay attention and learn, and I’m actually absorbing the material.”

She is not a fan of Zoom. In-person school is where it’s at, she said.

“I’m not distracted by my phone or by my computer and I’m able to just listen to what they’re saying and work with my peers,” Swartout said. “It’s been so much easier to work in groups and collaborate.”

Swartout said this is key for classes like AP Spanish, where conversation is everything. Sometimes the internet connections weren’t great.

Charlotte Lydon, 6, also of West Stockbridge, tried kindergarten by Zoom briefly last year and hated it.

“I had to turn off and on my voice,” Lydon said, referring to the frustrations of muting. “And I did not like staying in a seat for like, half a day, because my teacher used to have to talk and talk and talk and talk.”

Luckily, at Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School in Great Barrington, she had the choice to go to in-person school last year, and did.

Now in first grade, she’s still loving real school, and her teacher, Mrs. Haskell. They’re learning about bugs, and Lydon says she has developed a particular interest in bees and ladybugs.

But she isn’t so partial to some things in the pandemic school era. “I would rather it be without a mask,” Lydon said.

Colegrove Elementary School seventh grader Isabella Quick was also not thrilled to have to wear a mask, but she was happy about school starting.

“I’m really excited,” she while taking a break at the North Adams Skatepark on one of the last days of her summer vacation. She wanted to see her friends and meet her new teachers.

Last school year, Quick spent some time learning online and some time in-person. The year was “chaotic,” she said. Though she looked forward to socializing, she said masking and social distancing can make it hard for her to talk to friends.

Ella Smith, a seventh-grader at Berkshire Arts and Technology (BART) Charter Public School in Adams, disagreed. “Masks don’t get in the way of anything,” she said. Smith said she and her friends are proud to be vaccinated and most of her classmates follow COVID-19 safety rules, but some think following the rules make you a “loser.”

School started on August 23 at BART, and there have been five cases of COVID-19, according to Leah Thompson, director of Enrollment and Development.

“It does not feel safe,” Smith said, adding she doesn’t feel there is enough social distancing.

“I’m sorry to hear of this student’s concern,” Thompson wrote in an email to The Eagle. Thompson detailed the school’s COVID-19 precautions, which include mandatory masking with exceptions like while seated a lunchtime, increased air filtration, and weekly pooled testing.

Staff writers Heather Bellow and Meg Britton-Mehlisch contributed to this report.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6272.

Reporter

Greta Jochem, a Report for America Corps member, joined the Eagle in 2021. Previously, she was a reporter at the Daily Hampshire Gazette. She is also a member of the investigations team.