Still Socially Distant

Andrew Lombardo

When Hunterdon Central announced that we’d be returning to four days in-person, I instantly knew I wanted to go back. After spending an entire year in quarantine (rarely, but safely, seeing friends), I knew I wasn’t going to take my first true opportunity to socialize for granted. But I realized something was up as soon as I stepped into my first block. Our class doubled in size, yet it was twice as silent. The only person I talked to in that class was a friend who was already in my hybrid class. I knew almost everyone in this class, so why was it such an awkward introduction?

I continued about my day with more students in my classes and even more passing me in the halls.  In third block, I talked to two of my friends. The first friend got me thirty seconds into a conversation before the awkwardness set in. My second friend only gave me a hello. The only class in which I was social wasn’t the one where I knew the people from the previous year, but the class wher we’ve been taught to be social.

At first, I thought it was due to not being social with people with this many people for so long. While that seems like an obvious claim, that doesn’t make it any less true. It’s like not playing a sport or a video game or an instrument for a while will make you worse at that activity. Even some of my teacher’s agree, one saying “How did I teach 30 of you before?” But that answer is too simple. There are some deeper levels to this that I think are more important than it first seems.

When we went back in September, we were split into either the hybrid schedule or fully virtual. When I went back to the original hybrid groups, everyone seemed to be talking more than usual. That made sense to me—we haven’t been social therefore we would want to talk to our friends. If that’s the case, then why the difference? Either we all should have been more social during the four-day shift or we should have been less social in September.

This is the problem with social stamina. When the school reopened, there weren’t many kids per class. My personal highest student count was in my math class with all of ten students. Now that we’ve re-introduced everyone, there are too many people to be with at once; our brains have gone into overload. Throughout all of quarantine we’ve put a focus on social distancing and how being in a large group of people is a bad thing. We kept ourselves out of large social gatherings, and most days we spent were either with our families or a handful of other people. We simply aren’t used to being in the same room with, or even just talking, to a classroom worth of people.

My only class that didn’t face this struggle was my creative writing class. This was because our teacher had us talk in large groups via zoom over everyday questions, like “What’s a superpower you wish you had,” or “What’s something good that happened to you in the past 72 hours.” That class had us answer everyday personal questions, not just questions about the class, which got us to know each other and be comfortable with each other without actually being physically present together. So by the time we came back, we were used to each other, and the conversations flowed. This wasn’t an isolated case. Luckily, another one of my classes, Honors Biology, is allowing us to have random conversations in class, as long as we complete a certain amount of work. Since the teacher has allowed us to re-socialize, we’ve grown more comfortable around each other, and we’ve gotten back to a pre-covid way of socializing, albeit with the COVID guidelines.

This awkwardness is at the fault of our school (although unintentionally). We were so focused on getting our learning back to normal while still staying safe, that we never thought to try and get our social skills back. Sure, some teachers did make the attempt to have us talk with one another, but this was always in small groups out of the teachers’ sight, and the questions usually focused on the class itself. It was easier to stay muted, with cameras off and eyes on our phones.

Moving forward, I hope we are granted more “personal time” in class, for us to talk about random topics and form actual connections. Even if it’s just one two-minute activity every day, these exercises help us socialize.

This is going to have a huge impact down the line for our generation. We have forgotten how to be social with real people. The less comfortable we are in larger groups, the harder it’s going to be to form relationships outside of school. And, if the problem persists, it could even make the workplace less social. This pandemic was unexpected, and the consequences of it are just an extension of the problems we now have to face in the 21st century. However, we need to take this seriously, and reverse the social strain it’s had before it affects us and our future. Just in our classes, we can take small breaks for a few moments to get to know one another. But on a larger scale, I would like to see Central try and help our sociability by giving us more time to interact again after over a year of seeing the same masked faces. To reference the sources of strength wheel, we all need positive friends. But how can we have positive friends if we aren’t able to make any friends at all?