Back To School...What Comes After the Endless Summer?

Back To School...What Comes After the Endless Summer?

Summer is winding down and a new school year awaits us, brimming with untapped potential and personal triumphs yet unknown. The lazy August swelter will break, giving way to the crisp promise of a fresh September. Most years, we’d write one of those friendly “back to school” dispatches filled with cheery platitudes about the intoxicating smell of autumn, the thrill of a new football season, and the sun-dappled campus lawns now happily filled with all you beautiful people.

Most years, we’d do our best to build you up for the months ahead. We’d tell you that now is the time to start crushing it. Go full-throttle until the calendar turns cold and the holidays are upon us. We’d say something like that most years. But this isn’t most years.

This is the first day back after the Endless Summer–our 16-month hiatus from normalcy. I mean, there was school last year, but let’s be honest...it was weird. In fact, it was possibly the weirdest school year in history. Colleges waived testing requirements. Athletes competed before empty stands. Students masked up, socially distanced, and in some cases, continued to attend classes remotely. The only honest way to describe last school year was...unsettled.

So in a lot of ways, this isn’t the usual “back to school” debriefing after an all-too-short summer break. This is “back to school” after more than a year in educational limbo, treading water in a sea of uncertainty, with little sense of what exactly comes next.

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What Exactly Comes Next?

And of course, this fall semester year carries with it its own wave of unanswered questions. Questions about mask mandates, Delta variants, and vaccinations abound. From more than a year living under the cloud of this pandemic, we can presume that every state, every district, every institution, indeed, every household, will attempt to answer these questions according to its own understanding of the problem.

In other words, there is little that we can really predict about this school year. Will more universities impose vaccination requirements, as have prominent institutions like the California Institution of Technology, University of Delaware, and Rutgers University? Will another surge in the pandemic force school closures? Will opportunities, outreach, and access be restored in 2021 for those who slipped through the cracks in 2020?

We have no way of knowing. So as we enter into this school year, the only thing we can do is prepare for all possibilities. Piece a’ cake, right? Like it’s not hard enough to just prepare for real, concrete and foreseeable educational challenges. Now you have to also prepare for every hypothetical challenge that might be thrown at you by every possible universe?

...as we enter into this school year, the only thing we can do is prepare for all possibilities.”

Well, we can’t necessarily give you the power to navigate every strand of the multiverse without hitting any bumps in the space-time continuum. But we can give you a bunch of tips on how to be extra prepared for this school year.

I don’t care who you are…last year was a freakin’ trainwreck. So how can we do better this year? I’ll resist using the phrase “new normal” because I know you’re all sick of hearing it. But I will suggest that it is now incumbent upon us to adjust to these unideal circumstances. Certainly, it feels unlikely that circumstances will soon adjust to us. So how can we take hold of our education and our lives, even while things seem to be spiraling out of control around us?

Remote Learn Like It’s Your Job

2020 was a banner year for online education. More students than ever before benefited from the advent of remote learning. More educators than ever before took steps to transform in-person curriculum into web-mediated lesson planning. More families than ever before collaborated to better learn, understand, and use online learning technology.

And pardon us for saying so, but it was an absolute shit-show. Few of us were prepared for the sudden transition. From school administrators and educators to students and families, we struggled to make the most of it. Perhaps you started 2020 surrounded by your classmates, enveloped in a classroom buzzing with new ideas, immersed in a campus community pulsing with creativity.

But then you ended the year “attending class” in the reclining position, in your underwear, streaming episodes of Tiger King while lunching on Doritos and 5-hour ENERGY drink.

Suffice it to say, we could be making more of our online education. Hopefully, we find a way to experience this year safely, healthfully, and together, in the classroom, and on campus, where we belong. But we also have to be prepared for the possibility that this doesn’t occur.

This year, we hope for the best, but must also prepare for the possibility that some of our education will take place online, whether we like it or not. This time, let's all be ready for it.”

The pandemic caught us with our oversized sweatpants down. But we’ve had a chance to adjust, and to recognize how fortunate we are to at least have online education at our fingertips. Granted, 2020 revealed just how imperfect we are at administering and receiving online education. But in its absence, we’d have had nothing but isolation and academic drift. A century ago, the populations who weathered the worst of the Spanish Influenza pandemic did not at least have the benefit of time-tested Learning Management Systems and a web literacy rate of 72% among U.S. eighth graders. (Not great, but certainly a better rate of web literacy than we had in 1918.)

This year, we hope for the best, but must also prepare for the possibility that some of our education will take place online, whether we like it or not. This time, let’s all be ready for it.

For some help in your preparations, check out our 10 Tips for Adjusting to School Online.

Create a Routine and a Schedule

If everything comes crumbling down again—and who knows, it could—having a structured lifestyle to fall back on would help a lot. I presume each of us remembers at least one point last year when the days just started to blur together into a single amorphous blob of listlessness, uncertainty, and junk food. No? Just me?

Ok, that’s cool. You don’t have to admit it. But it is a good idea to preempt such an experience by getting into a groove now. School offers a natural structure, so it’s up to you to make the most of the time you spend outside of class. Designate a certain portion of each day to homework and study. Build time into your daily schedule for fitness. Leave flexibility for hanging out with friends, pursuing your personal interests, and even flopping down in front of a screen for a bit.

The idea is not to create a rigid schedule to occupy your every waking moment, but to ensure that, in the absence of the structure provided by in-person classes, you are armed with a personal strategy for balance in your personal and educational life. When the unexpected occurs in the world around you, you may find your salvation in a predictable routine.

Well That Was Awkward…But It’s Ok

For some, this fall will mark a first return to in-person education since April of 2020. In a way, we may all feel a bit like the new kid in school. Obviously, if this is your first year in college, you are all the new kid in school. Wherever you are in your education, it’s possible that it’s been a while since you’ve traded ideas in a live classroom debate, since you’ve joined a collaborative study group at the student center, since you’ve handwritten test answers in those little blue notebooks while classmates flip pages, clear their throats, and chew fingernails in earshot.

Just as the online educational experience was an adjustment, anticipate that the live classroom experience will demand a bit of reacclimation on your part. As excited as you are to jump back into real life, you may actually feel a touch of homesickness. This is natural. Home has been your safe haven in a tempest of risk and paranoia.

Just as the online educational experience was an adjustment, anticipate that the live classroom experience will demand a bit of reacclimation on your part.”

Expect some awkward social bumbling as you remember how to act around others. Perhaps it’s been a while since you had to manage the complex array of social conventions that govern school—from student-teacher relations to dining hall seating to dating. Give yourself the time to relearn your school’s rules of engagement, and cut yourself some slack as you do. By the same token, don’t forget to grant others the same courtesy. Let’s allow each other some space to be awkward as we all fumble through social reorientation.

Practice Total Self Care

If you are in crisis or having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline right away at 800-273-8255 or go online to chat with a trained mental health professional.

Your physical well being, mental health, and academic success are deeply intertwined. A positive outlook begins with a healthy lifestyle. 2020 was a year shrouded in medical paranoia. Every sore throat or runny nose might send you spiraling down the rabbit hole of worst-case-scenarios. Every personal risk factor felt magnified.

But this fall marks an opportunity to push the reset button. I’m not a doctor, so I’ll stop short of offering detailed medical advice. However, we can generally agree that eating well, getting plenty of sleep, adding exercise to your daily routine, and limiting your indulgence in drugs or alcohol can all improve your physical well-being.

But as we’ve learned beyond a reasonable doubt this past year, there’s a lot more to wellness than diet and exercise. In this period of heightened anxiety, tension, uncertainty, and loss, each of us has also faced a heightened risk of experiencing emotional and mental distress.

As a student, you face a unique set of pressures and demands that have also heightened your mental health risks. This year, place your mental health first. The pandemic revealed the extent to which we are all susceptible to feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. Listen to your body and your mind. Give them both exactly what they need.

Practice self-care, whether that means giving yourself an occasional mental health day, finding healthy outlets for your nervous energy, learning coping mechanisms for when you feel overwhelmed, or speaking to a counselor or another trained mental health professional. Most colleges keep counselors and therapists on call for students experiencing emotional distress. Do not be afraid to reach out when you need support.

If you are in crisis or having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline right away at 800-273-8255 or go online to chat with a trained mental health professional.

Take every step to care for your mental and emotional well-being. A positive mindset is a critical building block for academic success. Let’s take good care of ourselves and each other this year.

And know that whatever this year brings, we’ll be right here producing new resources, addressing important issues, and highlighting exciting opportunities in higher education. In other words, whatever comes our way, we’ll face it together.

And hopefully next year at this time, I can get back to the usual platitudes about fall and football. Until then…

Welcome back!

With the new school year upon us, we remind you to visit our Resources section frequently to check out helpful companion content like our:

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