Three hours into a recent Monday morning, blood had already been spilled in a hallway at Liberty High School. With his walkie-talkie in hand, the principal, Harrison Bailey III, called on the custodial staff to clean up the remnants of a brawl while hurrying to the cafeteria in hopes of staving off another.
This is how Dr. Bailey has spent many of his hours since the school welcomed back its 2,800 students for in-person learning in August: dashing around the 400,000-square-foot building, outrunning bells and crowds of students, and hoping that his towering presence will serve as an inspiration to pull up masks and a deterrent to other, less obvious burdens that his students have had to contend with since returning.
Like schools across the country, Liberty has seen the damaging effects of a two-year pandemic that abruptly ejected millions of students from classrooms and isolated them from their peers as they weathered a historic convergence of academic, health and societal crises. Teenagers arguably bore the social and emotional brunt of school disruptions.
Nationally, the high school-age group has reported some of the most alarming mental health declines, evidenced by depression and suicide attempts. Adolescents have failed classes critical to their futures at higher rates than in previous years, affecting graduations and college prospects. And as elected leaders and public health officials scrambled to bring students back to school last winter and spring, the focus on having the youngest and most vulnerable students return to in-person instruction left many high school students to languish, with large numbers missing most or all of the 2020-21 academic year.