The Opt-Out Experience

November 12th. More than 60 days into the school year.

School this year is different. More specifically, how we attend school, or for some of us, the lack of attending school. Sure, we’re receiving the same curriculum and lessons – but to be an opt-out student during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than 230,000 people in the United States and infected millions, closing down businesses and shattering daily social interactions, the experience of school isn’t the same.

Opt-Out learning is where students learn from home digitally via Zoom meetings with their teachers and peers at scheduled times. Now, one’s opinion on whether or not opt-out education is better or worse than physically going to school during COVID-19 is completely subjective. It all depends on what the person is experiencing, and their thoughts and views on their current situation. Somebody could be having a much more dissatisfactory lifestyle due to the pandemic compared to some others- whether socially or financially. As for this, this is my experience- as a sophomore, having not set foot in a public school building to learn for about nine months.

I guess I should start with social interactions, because that’s the first thing I think about whenever the opt-out life comes to mind.

I began this school year biking the suburbs near my house with my best friend at least every other day, as socially distant as possible. It was very good – not only was it great exercise, and a way to enjoy the amazing autumn weather while chatting about days past and video games – but probably one of the only constant physically social interactions I was able to have due to the pandemic and busy school schedule.

It’s times like this that one key aspect of distanced learning kicks in – you feel more free. Or at least in my experience. There’s something about being able to walk outside between classes and eat a snack while visiting your rabbit in the backyard on a beautiful fall day, instead of spending that time inside a brick building while social distancing with a mask on. It feels very easygoing compared to normal school, and I can definitely say that this element of opt-out classes had a positive effect on my mental state. Hiking, biking, and listening to music while cooking some mac and cheese in the comfort of your kitchen after social studies was new, and I loved all of it.

That being said, those privileges like bike rides only lasted about 50 days. And fifty days in quarantine goes fast.

It was mid-October, and the predicted second wave of coronavirus cases was pretty much about to hit. People were done with this whole pandemic and wanted to get back to normal. Late summer and fall parties, some maskless, popped up all over the United States. It was very disheartening to come downstairs every morning and see Dr. Fauci’s latest statement on the country’s situation – the world was trying to go back to normal, but the virus wasn’t done. It wouldn’t just disappear because we wanted it to.

It was also around this time that a part of me began to genuinely miss physical school. Despite the freedom and serenity that school from home brought to the table, my mind started to recognize all the problems I had been afraid to admit. I was participating in classes, but didn’t feel like I was forging an understanding and connection with my teachers over a screen and email. I was talking to friends and gaming with them after long school weeks, and it was super fun, but it wasn’t the same as sharing a laugh during lunch. Any connections I had felt like they were frozen in time. Some of the activities in school were easy and manageable, but lacked the charm of weird science labs and watching movies in social studies. And most of all, I wasn’t able to take my photography class I had been looking forward to for ages. It was this point that I realized that while this lifestyle had been exciting and relaxing, was it really what it was all hyped up to be?

And then last week, before the holiday season, I truly realized that life would not be back to normal for a while.

The school had reported another positive COVID case – and all of a sudden the only friend that I was able to share a physical presence with was quarantined. I could see nobody in person. The lack of social interaction came down like a weight.

Are we headed for a long winter? Yes. One that may not herald the same sunny days I cherished at the beginning of the school year. One in which the virus is likely to rear its ugly head throughout. But as much as I’d like to go back to normal school, there is still the lack of freedom of a regular academic year. So the question for me – and many others- becomes an uncertainty: “What is the way that I want to experience school?”

Past the (disappearing) days of being outside between classes,  having lunch whenever you feel, and being able to exercise and stretch without the limits of a in-building routine… there is a hollow sense that you’re not forging important connections.

I like opt-out learning, I do.

But it’s slowly dawning on me that I – like many others- cannot continue to live in social isolation. So what do I recommend? Instead of texting your friends all the time, call them. It feels much more like a conversation than words on a screen. Trust me, it’s a good feeling.