BDN reporter Eesha Pendharkar walks down a hall at Brewer High School with sophomore Brady Saunders while spending a day there to experience what high school is like for kids during the pandemic. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Lunch hour at Brewer High School on Wednesday morning was quiet.

Half the round cafeteria tables were empty, and only one or two students sat at tables meant for eight. It was the first time that day high schoolers had been able to take off their masks and hang out with a friend over lunch. But as some took advantage of the few minutes of relative normalcy, others stared down at their sandwiches as they ate, put their masks back on and quickly left the dining area.

While still the most social part of a student’s day, school lunch during a pandemic will feel unfamiliar to anyone who attended high school before COVID-19.

“All my friends are in the first group, so I’m not seeing them as much,” said sophomore Brady Saunders, who attends Brewer High School on Tuesdays, Thursdays and alternating Wednesdays. “The biggest difference is just having smaller classes and not being able to see people as much as before.”

At this point, high schools have been operating under pandemic restrictions for months: mandatory masks, social distancing in hallways and classes, fewer in-person interactions and smaller classes, sparse seating at lunch and no spectators allowed at sporting events have become standard.

But after months of writing about how COVID-19 had transformed education, I hadn’t experienced a day of school during the pandemic firsthand.

That’s why I walked into Brewer High School on Wednesday morning with my backpack and mask on, to be a high schooler for a day. I followed Saunders’ morning schedule, attending his first two classes and his lunch hour. After my day in high school, I realized that the learning aspect of school had been largely unchanged due to the work teachers and students have put into adapting to this new way of learning.

From top left (clockwise): A mask reminder sign hangs on the entry doors to Brewer High School; Cooper Masterson, a sophomore at Brewer High School, sits at a computer in Andrew Maxsimic’s multimedia class at Brewer High School on Wednesday; Science teacher Arthur Libby (left) sanitizes tables in between classes as sophomore Brady Saunders gets ready for class at Brewer High School Wednesday; Science teacher Arthur Libby teaches his AP biology class at Brewer High School Wednesday. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN

But when I attended high school, the best part was seeing my friends every day, sitting next to them in classes, sneaking in a few moments to exchange gossip in hallways and eating lunch together in large groups. All that interaction I remember is largely absent now. High school is mostly about the classes.

During my day as a high schooler, I took a quiz, built a DNA model in AP Biology and learned Adobe Animate in a multimedia class. But I didn’t talk to anyone in class, nor did I see any students talk to one another.

Part of the reason high school is almost devoid of socialization is that there are far fewer students to interact with. Brewer High School has allowed students back in two cohorts: the first attends school Mondays and Thursdays, the second on Tuesdays and Fridays. Each group also attends in person on alternating Wednesdays. A few students have chosen to learn entirely remotely and attend the same classes from home that students are participating in at school. Both my classes had about seven students in person and one or two attending online.

The pandemic restrictions have also physically limited student communication. They don’t chat, collaborate or even pass notes in classes because they sit at least 3 feet away from each other, and often farther.

In both my classes, students mostly just interacted with the teacher when they had questions. Otherwise, the rooms were so silent that I could hear pens scratching on paper in AP bio and keyboards clacking in multimedia class.

Between classes, students stick to one side of the hallway and walk a few feet apart from each other to get to their next class. There’s no lingering in hallways, hanging out at lockers or grabbing a drink at a water fountain.

From top left (clockwise): Computer technology teacher Andrew Maxsimic helps Stone Therrien on a multimedia project in class on Wednesday; Students at Brewer High School get dropped off on Wednesday morning; BDN reporter Eesha Pendharkar attends a multimedia class at Brewer High School on Wednesday where she spent a day to experience what high school is like for kids during the pandemic; To accommodate social distancing and allow for masks to be removed while eating, only two students can share a table at lunch. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN

Orange tape divides the Brewer High School hallways to direct foot traffic, and student movement resembles cars driving on either side of a double-yellow line instead of the large swarms of high schoolers chatting and mingling that I remember.

But it is these same restrictions that have led to schools being relatively safe throughout the pandemic, with the virus spreading substantially less in schools than elsewhere. Students follow all the guidelines the school has laid out without having to be reminded to wear their masks properly or maintain social distancing.

In fact, all my teenage classmates were better than I was at wearing their masks for hours on end. About three hours in, I had to go to the bathroom just to be able to take my mask off for a few seconds.

Unlike many of the largest school districts across the country, most Maine students have been able to return to in-person schooling at least a few days a week since September.

While COVID-19 cases have surged across the state over the past two months, schools have been relatively unaffected because of the same measures that take away from the social part of the high school experience.

The academic aspect of school has remained in large part the same, and Saunders said it’s still worth attending school in person for it.

From left: Jahfari Maddo (center) works on an assignment in AP biology at Brewer High School on Wednesday; BDN reporter Eesha Pendharkar attends an AP biology class on Wednesday at Brewer High School where she spent a day to experience what high school is like for kids during the pandemic; Computer technology teacher Andrew Maxsimic (left) talks with sophomore Brady Saunders at the beginning of a multimedia class on Wednesday. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN

Throughout my day, teachers split their attention between remote students and those in the classroom, often with the remote students watching the same screen as the in-person students. Between classes, teachers sanitized tables and wiped down chairs. When in-person students were working on assignments, they talked to remote students to make sure they were caught up.

“Normally I could have 20 kids in this room, teaching the same content I’m teaching now. It’s weird to have a small class,” said Andrew Maxsimic, a computer teacher whose multimedia class I attended along with six in-person and two remote students on Wednesday. “And then it’s weird to teach the same exact thing two days in a row.”

While administrators and teachers have had to rethink almost every aspect of high school, from lunch to classes, from picture days to award ceremonies, Principal Brent Slowikowski said there have been some benefits of the new style of learning. Teachers have been able to offer students personalized attention due to the smaller class sizes, he said, and those smaller class sizes have also meant fewer behavioral problems.

“I don’t want to do all of this forever,” he said. “But there are some advantages.”

Watch more: