By Maya H.

When we first entered lockdown in California, I was in eighth grade. In August 2021, I stepped foot on campus for the first time in three semesters as a sophomore in high school. In the year and a half that my school district was fully online, a lot changed in the lives of myself and my peers, both in tangible and abstract ways. Though I knew eventually we’d go back to school in-person, the announcement that the 2021-2022 school year would be in-person still surprised me: how could we go back to school as it always had been, with the exception of COVID testing and mask-wearing, after so much in everyone’s life had unraveled and been haphazardly re-stitched together?

After the surprise wore off, I was apprehensive about schools reopening for the 2021-2022 school year. Safety concerns aside, the jump from only seeing close friends occasionally to being surrounded by hundreds of classmates every day for eight hours terrified me. I was nervous I wouldn’t be able to adjust, and that my mental health would be driven into the ground as I struggled to keep up with the increased workload, the decrease in free time, and the constant draining of my social battery.

Now, with one semester of in-person school nearly behind me, my perspective has drastically changed. The school year has certainly had its fair share of challenges so far, but for every all-nighter pulled and early morning commute, there have been immeasurable moments where I am reminded of how returning to in-person school has saved the students—especially the queer and trans ones—at my school.

For a year and a half, queer and trans students were kept home and spent nearly every day in households where they needed to lower their voices when discussing LGBTQ+ current events, never audibly correct pronoun usage, and withhold from attending GSA meetings or other virtual gatherings of queer and trans people for fear of being outed, ridiculed, or punished. As GSA member IE detailed, “It was hard. I’d be watching Netflix and a gay scene would come up, and my mom would come up and get mad. It was like that for a really long time.” Their anecdotes have been echoed endlessly by other queer and trans students in the past months.

Though not the case for nearly enough student populations, attending my school in-person has acted as a reliable, temporary escape from the hushed Zoom calls and gritted teeth of virtual learning while being queer. Teachers ask for pronouns on the first day of school, our GSA holds education and support meetings, and counselors hold office hours to work through emotional blockades with students. Queer and trans students can redirect the energy used during virtual school to tone down or hide queerness and instead channel it towards schoolwork, extracurriculars, or self-care. School has once again become a space where students can offload a little bit of the weight they carry on their shoulders. Another student, PT, summed up their feelings regarding being queer at in-person school, saying, “Coming back was so nice because it’s just easier to be around people [while out] when I know I’m always going to have somebody there to support me in person, even if it’s not everybody.”

For all the positives that in-person school has granted the queer and trans community at my school, one area lacking is the general destigmatization of mental health issues. Throughout 2020 and the beginning of 2021, it felt as if mental health was finally getting the recognition it deserved: teachers were urging students to prioritize their mental health, reassured students that personal well-being was more important than a packet of math homework, and offered extensions if asked for one. And though in-person learning has in many ways been more stressful, with less time to do work and more extracurriculars, it seems that more and more teachers are forgetting the toll that stress takes on students’ mental health. Though we have in some ways returned to a pre-COVID education system, students continue to carry countless burdens on their backs, heightened by the pandemic and the unique challenges COVID-19 presented families and individuals. When asked, every single student answered that their feelings of anxiety increased noticeably since being back in person and that they miss to varying degrees how their mental health was respected during online school. For queer and trans students to be truly supported, our mental health must be supported as well, especially during this murky transition between post and pre-COVID times.

The muddy switch back to a life that doesn’t exist entirely on Zoom has been a rocky road for everyone, but queer and trans students have faced perhaps the most severe whiplash. While in-person learning offers LGBTQ+ students the opportunity to exist in a sometimes more welcoming environment where their queerness doesn’t need to be hidden, it also remains an incredibly stressful environment that calls for mental health support not currently being provided. Looking into the new semester, I’m excited for the opportunity to continue to build community, and more importantly, be a voice to ensure that our queer and trans community continues to be supported—mentally, academically, and emotionally.