CHELSEA — Most days, Chelsea High School sophomore Rachel Feliz falls asleep in the same online class.
As the teacher starts reading a book or telling a story, her eyes, hidden with the camera off, start to droop. No one can see her rest her head on the pillow. “How do you read a book over Zoom?” she says. “It doesn’t catch my attention.”
Her grades have dropped this year from all Bs to Cs and a couple of Ds. “I can do better,” the 15-year-old says. “I have done better.”
When the 1,400-student Chelsea High reopens Monday, after more than a year of remote learning, Rachel will be there. She acknowledges six weeks isn’t much time, but “I definitely think it’s worth a try to improve my grades,” she says.
Her close friend, however, won’t be in class with her. Sophomore Yaneisy Garmendia feels safer at home. With images of her mother and uncle battling COVID-19 seared in her mind, she’s worried her city is reopening too quickly.
Like Yaneisy and Rachel, high school students in Chelsea are divided over the decision to go back. Some are still afraid of the virus that’s closely stalked this city of immigrants and essential workers while other teens are desperate for in-person contact with teachers, guidance counselors, and friends.
Schools across the country have grappled with whether and when to reopen. In some states such as Rhode Island and Florida, schools have been open most of the year with limited community spread within them. (However, some experts say, Florida hasn’t been testing students enough and question the state’s data.)
Others, including Massachusetts, have taken a more cautious approach. The state initially allowed districts to choose whether to reopen in person. Most suburban and rural districts opened on a part-time basis, while urban centers with large populations of students of color remained closed for much of the year.
Nearly two-thirds of Massachusetts parents polled in February and March by MassINC Polling Group said they feared for their children’s emotional well-being. Surveys of students and studies of emergency room visits reflect an increase in depression, anxiety, and substance use for young people. “But whether that’s for being out of school or for other things, like losing a family member or family income, is not clear,” said Sharon Hoover, professor and co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Still, many health professionals have been urging the return to physical classrooms, including the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Erin Bromage, associate professor of immunology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, helped open schools successfully in Rhode Island last fall and has watched as districts around Boston remained shuttered.
“It’s driving me mad that we haven’t had high schools open,” said Bromage. “There’s no evidence that being in school fosters transmission ... as long as we take care of the air and filter what comes out of our mouths.”
Rachel and Yaneisy met in seventh grade and later tried out together for the high school cheerleading team. Before the pandemic, the sport kept them busy with practice and games until dinner time. Their school couldn’t find a coach this year and they’ve been on their own to stay motivated to stay in shape.
It’s been like that with school, too.
Rachel often works from her bed, her legs tucked under a white duvet, with her laptop resting on her legs. Falling asleep is always a risk. “I have timers for every class, just in case.”
At least once a week during the school day, her grandmother will need help running errands. Rachel jumps at the chance to join her, just to get out of the house. She pulls up the class meeting on her phone and watches from the passenger seat of her grandmother’s car or while she pushes the cart around the grocery store.
Rachel says she hasn’t learned much this year and worries about how it might affect her future. This month, she’ll take the MCAS, the state standardized test she has to pass to graduate, and fears she won’t be successful. “We’re not at all even remotely prepared for any big tests.”
After the state announced all high schools must reopen full time by Monday, 51 percent of Chelsea High students said they would go back, according to a survey by the district. Many of them, like Rachel, want to salvage what they can of the school year.
Senior Vera Martins has put off applying for Bunker Hill Community College and financial aid because no one at home could help her. Likewise, some of her friends have decided not to go at all because they couldn’t get in-person help with their applications or simply lost motivation for school. The trend is apparent at the high school, where applications for federal financial aid are down 40 percent since last year.
Vera worries she won’t be able to complete her applications in the weeks remaining in the school year. “Why didn’t they open sooner?” she asks.
Even with some students’ need to return for personal support, demand for in-person learning in Chelsea is lower for high schoolers than for elementary, where 55 percent opted for brick-and-mortar classrooms.
With infection rates higher among high school students compared to their younger peers, some stay away out of fear of contracting or spreading the virus. Others have borne more of the trauma of the pandemic.
Rachel’s friend Yaneisy doesn’t feel safe going to the building with hundreds of other students. In the fall, when her mom got sick with COVID-19, Yaneisy took care of her while her brother and father quarantined. Yaneisy wiped down all of the surfaces in the house every hour to prevent the virus from spreading.
She also watched as her uncle slowly recovered from debilitating hallucinations after being hospitalized with COVID-19. “Corona is no joke,” she says.
From her perspective, Yaneisy thinks schools are reopening too quickly. “What’s the rush?” she asks. “Why can’t we wait to see how it turns out with the vaccine?”
The reticence among some students and families to go out in public feels particularly acute in this city, where more than 1 in 5 residents has tested positive for the virus. The community is one of the most densely populated in the state. Many residents live in cramped housing, lack access to health insurance, and have preexisting health conditions that would make catching the virus much more serious.
“There’s huge fear here and that comes from trauma,” said Stephanie Rodriguez, director of Chelsea REACH, a drop-out prevention program based at the high school. “At one point we were the epicenter of the virus. To come back from that is not easy.”
School leaders hoped getting the vaccine out to older students would help them resume their lives. On a recent weekend, more than 100 students lined up starting at 9 a.m. at the city’s senior center for their shot.
But even some vaccinated students don’t feel ready to head back. Senior Victoria Stutto scored a vaccine at a different clinic a few weeks ago but only feels comfortable studying from home since vaccines aren’t fool-proof. “This city was really struggling. I’m surprised how soon they are going to reopen,” she said.
Instead, the 18-year-old feels like her peers are being too cavalier amid the pandemic while the community is far from herd immunity. Victoria hasn’t even wanted to take a socially distanced walk with friends and feels uncomfortable with the way some students have been “partying and going to social gatherings.”
“It makes me nervous,” she said.
She hopes she’ll feel more comfortable in the fall when it’s time for her to start at Davidson College in North Carolina, where classes are slated to meet in person.
But other Chelsea High students who wanted an in-person learning environment weren’t given a choice.
Sophomore Dariana Lopez-Lobo wanted to return to the brick-and-mortar classroom this month. She gets less attention from teachers online and she doesn’t feel comfortable asking questions on Zoom, where everyone will hear her. But her parents had different plans.
Her 8-year-old brother, Carlos, has asthma, an ailment that plagues 17 percent of Chelsea residents. He hasn’t left the house since the pandemic started and continues to study from home. To keep him safe, Dariana also should stay home, her parents told her — and she agreed.
“I do have a responsibility to take care of my health and his health,” she said with some sadness.
Dariana, along with all adults in her household — two parents, one aunt, one uncle, and two cousins — have been vaccinated, but it hasn’t made them feel any safer about sending her to school.
She plans to return to in-person school this fall. “But I also worry that cases will go up and everything will have to stay online,” she said.