Mariah McCoy started her freshman year at Pleasant Hill’s College Park High School with webcast classes, awkward online social gatherings and not a single real-live school event to meet new friends.
But as classes resume this fall on campus with no social distancing, no random COVID-19 testing and no face mask mandates, it’s the closest Mariah, now a 15-year-old junior, and just about every other California teenager have come to the traditional high school experience. And they’re embracing it. Even volleyball games are getting standing-room-only crowds.
“I started high school on Zoom, so I didn’t really know what to expect,” said Mariah, who works in student leadership to build school spirit.
Before the pandemic, senior Alexander Lee said his classmates at Leland in San Jose were taking high school for granted. “I think we kind of fell into the sort of monotony of going to school, you know, just treating everything as normal,” Alexander, 17, said. “But because we were at home for so long by ourselves, I noticed that when we came back, we came back in force. We sprung to life.”
The Bay Area News Group visited high schools on both sides of the Bay to witness the resurgence and found that, at least for now, the pandemic has finally taken a back seat to the high school experience.
To be sure, COVID-19 isn’t finished. Transmission rates remain high throughout the Bay Area and 89% of U.S. counties, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though community risk levels reflecting the virus’ burden on hospitals have fallen to low levels in the Bay Area’s largest counties.
So far, health officials haven’t seen a big rash of new cases since students returned to classes.
Contra Costa Health Services said there are 25 outbreaks of three or more cases at county schools, but that’s far fewer than the 260 outbreaks they had back in January. College Park High Principal Kevin Honey said Thursday he had issued just two COVID case notifications that day, a fraction of what he was reporting last school year, even when everyone was required to wear masks.
“I was doing 25 a day,” Honey said.
In Santa Clara County, health officials said they were looking into just one potential school-related outbreak that likely originated from an off-campus, overnight event.
California was the last state to resume in-person learning after school closures in 2020 and among the few to impose and last to lift statewide school mask mandates, which came off in the spring. But this year, desks aren’t spread apart, students aren’t summoned for random COVID-19 tests and masks at most schools are optional.
This past Thursday, about one in four students were wearing masks around campus at College Park and about one in three at Leland. But students say the questions that came with decisions to mask or not last spring are refreshingly gone. College Park senior Yousif Dajani, 17, said that when the statewide school mask mandate was lifted last March, about half of students stopped wearing them and “there was a little bit of judging.
“If you didn’t have a mask on, people thought certain things about you,” said Yousif, who recovered from COVID-19 in January and no longer wears a mask. “It kind of got a little bit weird during that time.”
Now, “it’s not as big a thing,” said Mariah, who has managed to avoid getting COVID-19, but still slips on a blue surgical mask in class or a crowded hallway.
“I have family that I want to protect. I don’t want them to get it,” she said. “I’ve never gotten judged or anything. It’s just like a personal preference.”
For his part, Yousif said he’s eager to leave as much of the pandemic behind as possible and return to the experience he recalled from his freshman year.
“I want to enjoy high school,” Yousif said. “Not that you can’t enjoy it with a mask. But without the regulations with masks and all that kind of stuff, the spirit and the overall like community is a lot better.”
Like most of his students, College Park science teacher Dylan Bland has stopped wearing his N95. He’d worn it faithfully through the return to in-person teaching. And he still has “lots of students” out now with COVID-19. But after catching the virus last summer at a friend’s wedding, Bland no longer feels the need to wear a mask.
“I tell my students, ‘whatever you’re comfortable with, you do you,’” Bland said.
The loosening of pandemic restrictions on high school sports has been a big boost not only for the athletes but for school spirit in general, students said.
At Leland, senior Michael Sher, 17, a water polo player who lost his sophomore season and competed in an abnormal “super season” in 2021, said the pandemic was hard on the team. They went through four head coaches in four years and missed out on senior leadership during the canceled season.
“Our team culture has always been to go as hard as we can every year, and the pandemic broke that down a bit,” Michael said. “This year, it’s been really cool to see that spirit start coming back.”
Yousif, a basketball player at College Park, can relate. He doesn’t miss the constant testing, quarantining and spectator limits of two or three per player that left teams playing in quiet, half-empty gyms.
“Half the fun of playing at a high school level is your friends coming to watch you,” he said, “other schools coming to watch you, and just, like, a loud, fun gym, the student section talking to you, talking smack to you. If you take that out of it, it’s like you’re just playing in front of your parents.”
Last month, a routine volleyball game at College Park drew a full house.
As much as they’re grateful to move beyond the pandemic, students and educators said the changes imposed on them weren’t all for the worse. Mariah and Yousif said the push to remote learning left them with an online class organization and communication structure that makes it much easier to keep track of assignments and reach out to teachers for help.
And some changes actually proved popular. Honey, the College Park principal, said moving the Homecoming dance outdoors boosted attendance.
“If 1,200 kids want to come, everyone gets to go,” Honey said. “It’s one of those found nuggets.”
Leland senior Bella Campbell said students have started to rebuild school traditions and bonds with one another.
“This is a completely different genre of students from the last time we were operating normally, but they’ve really embraced high school,” Bella, 17, said. “They’ve brought the school spirit. They’re jumping off the walls at rallies. I think the school has really missed that.”