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Documentary Photo Essay - Begin Again: A Baltimore City School Reopens “Post Covid”
I got a call in late February from Denise, a Baltimore City school teacher at James McHenry Elementary and Middle who followed me on Instagram. She said she liked my documentary photo style and wanted to know if I could photograph kids returning to school after a year and a half of virtual learning. “All the teachers are so excited to see the kids again in person,” she said. “I want to make sure we document the hugs and happy tears and just how big the day is for everyone,” she added. When she asked if I could come and photograph the teacher/student/friends reunion in two days for free, of course I said yes.
But what I found that morning at school was not what I expected. While I wasn't naive enough to think kids were going to be all smiles and hugs going back to school, I didn’t expect the abundance of anxiety and reticence and confusion. The school did everything right. They were ready to go, eager to resume class as normal. But we’re just not there.
I documented the hugs and excitement but I also told the other stories in these photos: that returning to school in a pandemic is not only challenging but emotionally fraught and many-layered. From administrators asking each child a list of COVID protocol questions, to kids wearing rainbow face shields to make this fun, the spectrum of emotions was wide and fascinating to explore as a photographer.
These photos document the reopening of a Baltimore City School during the pandemic. I documented students, teachers and parents at the James McHenry Elementary and Middle School on two dates: March 1, 2021 when the school first reopened after the year-long shut down, and August 29, 2021 when the school officially reopened after summer break.
I included photos from both dates. The March photos (kids in winter coats) show the still early days of returning to school with masks and temperature readings and precautions in place. The fall reopening (kids and adults lining up to enter the building) shows a more streamlined, firmer and more studied approach to a safe and effective reopening.
But the March and August dates blur together.
And that’s the effect I find interesting: the kids are eager, frightened, reluctant and excited to return to school to see friends and loving teachers. But they’re also reticent, whether it’s been a year or two and a half months. School looks and feels so different and, even when one child is eating her free school-provided breakfast, she is wearing a mask wondering what’s allowed and what’s not, what’s safe and what isn’t.