Natalie McCray could hardly sleep before her first day of eighth grade on Monday.
“I woke up at like 6:45, which was way earlier than I needed,” she said.
She got ready faster than usual, dressed in a white multicolored blouse, wide-legged jeans and a royal blue face mask to match the blue accents on her brand-new, white high-top sneakers.
It’s an outfit she’s been thinking about for months, she said.
Natalie was 11 years old when her Georgia school went all-remote in March 2020. Now she’s 13, and like countless other students this fall, she’s returning to the classroom for the first time since the pandemic started. She and those students have grown a lot over the past 17 months, and the world around them has changed dramatically.
But for Natalie, there’s one thing that has stayed the same: the thrill of going back to school.
Going back to school and feeling like the new kid
Before leaving for school on Monday morning, Natalie took stock of her backpack: She had a notebook for each core subject (math, social studies, science, language arts, Spanish), her lunch (a sandwich, Oreo yogurt, strawberries), her agenda, ChapStick, hand sanitizer and lip gloss. She almost walked out the door without her school-issued laptop — but mom remembered.
Outside Webb Bridge Middle School in Alpharetta, Ga., a line of cars dropped students off at the entrance, where the masked principal welcomed them as they waved goodbye to family members. Inside, students stopped at hand sanitizer dispensers and huddled around classroom assignments posted on the hallway walls in neon paper. The students — nearly 1,200 of them — all wore masks: pink masks, cheetah print masks, medical masks, even N95s.
Natalie’s first class, her compass class, started at 8:55 a.m. During the half-hour advising block, she and her classmates shared how they spent their summers and went over first-day-of-school logistics with teacher Nathan Amrine. Mr. Amrine played music softly in the background and students sat across four tables, in chairs with tennis balls on each of the legs.
Last week, when Natalie met Mr. Amrine at the school’s open house, she told him, “I shouldn’t feel like a new kid, because I’m not. But I feel like a new kid.”
And it’s a feeling she’s familiar with. Natalie and her family moved to Alpharetta two years ago, in time for Natalie to start fresh at Webb Bridge as a sixth-grader. Back then, she was shy and had a hard time meeting people. And just as she was coming out of her shell, she said, the coronavirus hit.
“I felt like all of my work was just thrown out the window.”
Natalie spent all of seventh grade learning online — and like a lot of other kids, she had a hard time.
“She’s in a neighborhood where there aren’t a lot of kids her age, so she was really isolated, on her laptop, at home doing school all day,” her mom, Nakilia McCray, explained.
Natalie’s grades slipped. She started to miss the stability of in-person school. And she realized that, despite her nerves around meeting new people, she wanted to be around the other kids.
“Life’s way too short to just sit back and kind of shut yourself off from everyone around you just because you’re scared,” she said. “I feel like there are times that you just need to take the risk and face your fears.”
Natalie spent her first day of school introducing herself to new people and raising her hand in class — something she said she rarely used to do.
“Those are small risks,” she said, “but they’re still risks nonetheless, in my eyes.”
Finding her voice while the world changed
Natalie’s school in the suburbs of Atlanta is predominantly Asian American and white. Only about 11% of students are Black, like her.
“I was always taught as a little Black girl in a predominantly white area, you kind of have to work twice as hard to get half the credit for literally anything,” she said. “And that’s what I’ve been doing my entire life.”
But a lot changed during the pandemic. George Floyd was murdered; protesters marched for racial justice around the country; the United States elected a new president.
“I saw the people around me starting to show their true colors,” Natalie said. She lost some friends and gained new ones.
She said her teachers also started talking about racism and oppression in the present tense last year, and Natalie started devoting her social media to speaking up about it for the first time.
Finding her voice, and navigating her friendships, wasn’t always easy.
“All that happening at once is really stressful for someone who, at the time, was like 11 years old.”
The return to in-person school could be short-lived
Since then, Natalie has been looking forward to returning to school — but the rapidly spreading delta variant of the coronavirus could complicate things.
In Georgia and across the country, cases among children are rising. Some schools in Georgia have already announced they’re sending kids home to learn virtually after starting the school year in person.
And while Natalie is fully vaccinated, many middle school-age students in the U.S. aren’t. Children under 12 aren’t yet eligible for the vaccine, and as of Tuesday, less than one-third of 12- to 15-year-olds had gotten their shots, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Natalie’s school district, Fulton County Schools, announced last week that masks will be required until coronavirus spread slows.
That was welcome news for the McCray family.
Natalie is excited to finally play her saxophone in band class instead of on Zoom and do science experiments in person, but she knows the coronavirus could still change everything.
“I’m scared I’m going to get used to face-to-face [learning] again,” Natalie said, “and then if everything gets shut down, I’ll be back to the way I was six months ago in school.”