A math book, back pack, desk, surgical mask, and other school related items.

Student Reflections: Looking Back on School during COVID

Illustration by Julie Hotz for CalMatters/CatchLight

California’s public schools started the 2021-22 school year committed to in-person instruction. Students tried to return to normal — studying for tests, making friends, going to dances. But their experience was far from normal, especially in the beginning of the year. Students and teachers were required to wear masks for much of the school year. The polarization around masks and vaccine mandates tore apart friendships and led to harassment on campus and social media.

Many safety protocols have changed since the fall, but the 2021-22 school year ended for many districts against the familiar backdrop of new COVID-19 variants and surging case numbers. Meanwhile, 7 of 10 public schools reported that more of their students are seeking mental health services.

Map showing relative location of Nevada Union High School, San Antonio Elementary and Buttonwillow Elementary in California

This project, a collaboration between CalMatters and CatchLight, attempts to capture what student life looked like in spring of 2022. These photos show how other-worldly school campuses were. Students wore masks. Signs on bathroom doors read “ONLY 3 STUDENTS ALLOWED.” Banners on fences urged students to get their vaccines. At the same time, these photos offer glimpses of a pre-pandemic education as students tried to make the most of their first, fully in-person school year of the pandemic.

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