Students get oriented on the first day back at CAPA high school in South Philadelphia

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The bell rings signaling the end of class. As people race down the hall, everyone around me begins packing their bags. On the walk out, the teacher shouts about the homework due tonight, and everything appears to be normal. Then I adjust my mask for the fifth time, and am brought back to reality.

Breathing is even more difficult with anxiety — an anxiety of being around people that developed within me over time.

Tuesday marked the first day of in-person learning for Philly schools after being online for over a year. The closer the date crept, the more a feeling of uncertainty closed in on me. Every day brought new details about mask restrictions, required COVID testing, arrangements for social distancing, and the “what if” solutions to the worst possible outcome.  It feels like students are expected to follow rules and regulations that seem almost impossible in a school setting.

After starting high school in fall 2019, I barely got to experience my freshman year. My sophomore year was entirely virtual. I have definitely not had the “high school experience” I dreamed of in middle school. I used to love interacting with people in the lunchroom, running down the hallway to hug a friend I hadn’t seen in a week, and sharing laughs and simple gestures with others around me. Now I’m starting my junior year with new responsibilities — and a lot of new doubts.

I’m hopeful, scared, and nervous all at the same time.

I’m nervous about my family, about how being in a space with 30-plus students will ultimately affect them. Will I get sick? Will I bring it back to those I love at home? Even though we are vaccinated, that doesn’t dispel the thoughts of what could happen. I don’t want to be the cause of someone’s illness.

Then there’s my own risk. Asthma is an ongoing battle for me. Once winter hits, it flares up, and the next thing I know I’m struggling to breathe. I’m tearing up as I hold back my coughs so I don’t have to excuse myself from class for the third time. I can’t even imagine what will happen when you add mask restrictions, or have this looming fear that you might end up hospitalized next. Having active or uncontrolled asthma carries an even greater risk of hospitalization, according to a recent report by Kaiser Permanente and USC.

I’m scared about the looks I may get from others around me if I run to the bathroom coughing up a lung. Will they think I’m sick? Will people avoid me? I’m worried about my health.

Despite all of the fears, I remain optimistic. I’m glad we’ve arrived at a place where we can have greater social circles and gatherings. Though the restrictions might be hard to follow all the time (maintaining social distance is tough with 400 students walking around), in general they enable us to go back to “normal” in some capacity.

I wish I knew how the school year would be, how the transition from online to in-person will be, and how this new normal would feel after being in isolation for so long. But the changes in the school setting are going to make for a new experience. It will be a rude awakening taking tests in person again, and relearning how to use proper grammar after quarantine has significantly lowered your English skills.

Regardless, I look forward to seeing my friends again, having some kind of a high school experience, and continuing my journey of becoming a better me.

Gabby Rodriguez is a Philadelphia-based young Latinx multimedia creator and artist. They are a high school student at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) and a WHYY student...