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Why Back to School and Back to Normal Are Not the Same Thing

Normal, by definition, refers to the typical, usual, or expected. As humans, we thrive on the predictable, the consistent, the normal. This past year we have seen a redefinition of what “normal” means in our everyday lives. Society has come to learn that the world we live in can change instantly, but that we are resilient and can adapt.

Normalcy in the Lives of Children

Children are some of the most adaptable people within our society. They have less established expectations and definitions for the world around them, making them more flexible than adults. However, children, developmentally, thrive on consistency and predictability within their environment. Schedule and routine aid in brain growth and development. 

COVID presented a drastic change in the structure and environment of education. We had to remove students from a structure they were familiar with, unsure of when they would return. As the pandemic has progressed, students could return to school. However, back to school and back to normal are not the same thing.

Benefits of a “Normal” School Environment

Social Relationships

Social-emotional health and development is a crucial piece of learning during early education. Students must learn how to interact with the world around them, express emotions effectively, handle conflict, and the most effective forms of communication. In-person learning allows students to practice these skills daily as they go throughout their day alongside their classmates. Active engagement with classroom teachers consistently allows students to form crucial attachment relationships that can allow them to learn and grow.

Engaged, Active Learning

When students are present in a physical classroom, the learning environment is both tangible and accessible. Not all students have the ability to learn within an online environment successfully. Physical classrooms provide active learning situations that can easily cater to a student’s learning style.

Resource Accessibility

In-person education provides students with hands-on materials and resources to aid in their growth and development. We have come to understand that learning environments need to vary in their content delivery to help stimulate brain growth and engagement.


In-person education provides an accessible education for all students. Students must simply find a way to show up to learn. Virtual education requires access to technology, Wi-Fi, and a learning environment that is conducive to growth.

Extracurricular Activities and Electives

Not all students excel in traditional education subjects. In-person learning allows them the opportunity to involve themselves in extracurricular activities and electives that may better suit their personality.

COVID’s Change to the Traditional Learning Environment

COVID spurred a drastic change in what we perceive as the normal learning environment. Schools sent students home in the middle of their school year, and teachers were suddenly required to finish out the year virtually. There was an urgent demand for access to technology at home. Parents needed to find a way to work from home as their children could no longer attend school physically.

The Push to Return

Parents, educators, and administrators quickly realized that the change in learning environment detracted from all the benefits that children had when they attended in-person learning environments. A push for the return to normal became an ever-present effort. Parents needed the ability to work, and students needed a way to interact with the world around them. But it was quickly apparent that normal would not look so normal.

Back to School and Back to Normal are Not the Same

The learning environment that students have returned to is a drastically different one than what existed when they left. We need to reevaluate the free-flowing environments of social interaction, physical touch, and free play.

While still able to interact socially with their classmates, these interactions look different. Students must now be cautious of their space, wear a mask, and socially distance. Classrooms with free seating environments have had to switch back to assigned seating.

Students need to bring their supplies, clean their desks, and not share classroom manipulatives. Plastic enclosures now surround many desks.

A simple look into the classroom can confirm that the new normal is not the normal we are accustomed to. While children are back to school, school is not the familiar place that it used to be.

The Benefits of the New Normal

Although the environment has made adaptions that are new and different and often frustrating, the return to school has reintroduced children to the benefits that in-person learning provides for those who attend.

Social Relationships

The way that interaction takes place may look different, but students can be in social environments once again. No longer secluded at home with just their family members, children can continue to benefit from the social-emotional environment that exists around their peers.

Engaged, Active Learning

Virtual learning has drastically decreased, allowing students to benefit from an active environment once again. The classroom layout may differ, but it is far closer to normal than attending class on a computer screen.

Resource Accessibility

Teachers and students must sanitize and disinfect resources between uses. Still, children are no longer limited to learning in homes that are not equipped with the educational variety of a classroom.


Vulnerable student populations once again have access to a safe environment with nurturing staff and free meals.

Extracurricular Activities and Electives

Activities may look slightly different; they may involve masks where masks did not exist before, but students are now once again exposed to a learning environment that provides diverse experiences.

A New Normal is Better than Nothing

While our “normal” has changed, back to school, although different, still provides our students with learning environments that are crucial for development and growth. As I mentioned above, students thrive in structure and routine but are also immensely resilient. The return to school has allowed this routine and predictability back into their lives while also proving how adaptable they are when making changes.

Written by Lacy Smith

Education World Contributor

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