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Graduating seniors talk about a high school experience clouded by the pandemic

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

It's that time of year.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCAMMON: High school seniors across the country are filing into auditoriums and filling up gymnasiums and football bleachers, all to celebrate their accomplishments, receive their diplomas and take in words of wisdom from their commencement speakers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I just want to extend my personal congratulations to our graduating class.

MCCAMMON: This year, there's a common thread.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Your last four years have been anything but normal.

MCCAMMON: The class of 2023 started high school before the pandemic and spent the end of their freshman year and subsequent years navigating a new reality. Graduation speakers this year celebrated their resilience, like principal Rebecca Morrisey of Topeka High School in Kansas.

REBECCA MORRISEY: You have persevered, surviving masks, remote and hybrid learning.

MCCAMMON: Or this one from salutatorian Victoria Loridan (ph) at Wellington High School in Palm Beach, Fla.

VICTORIA LORIDAN: At least we can one-up our parents in the stories we're telling our kids. Oh, you climb mountains and swam across a river to go to school? I had to show up to school in a hazmat suit and dodge coughs and sneezes just to take a math test in second period.

BROOKLYN WOOD: Every time the classroom phone rang, we anxiously waited to find out who was next to get sent home due to contact tracing.

MCCAMMON: In Brooklyn Wood's (ph) speech at Stewarts Creek High School in Smyrna, Tenn., the pandemic was framed as a lesson in perseverance.

WOOD: But this class embraced the chaos.

MCCAMMON: Proof that her classmates can overcome obstacles and are destined for success.

WOOD: I love you, Red Hawks. Thank you.

WOOD: Now, commencement speeches are sort of required to be uplifting, especially with everything this class of seniors has gone through. According to many studies, there has been considerable learning loss for K-12 students throughout the pandemic, and a recent study from researchers at Harvard and Stanford shows that the pandemic exacerbated existing inequalities. We wanted to know what the last four years really felt like for the class of COVID-19, so we talked to three students who lived it. They each had an idea of what they thought high school would be, like Jamari Reese (ph) of Saint Louis, Mo. whose vision was shaped by a lot of Disney Channel viewing.

JAMARI REESE: I was really into "High School Musical," so I was very excited with having the social experience.

MCCAMMON: Arnav Darmagata (ph) of Russell, Ky., who was hoping for independence.

ARNAV DARMAGATA: I think I walked into high school really looking for, like, more freedom in just myself and what I chose to do and especially with the classes I chose to take.

MCCAMMON: And Gabby Velasquez (ph) of Orange County, Calif., who went to a public middle school and was transferring to a private school as a scholarship student.

GABBY VELASQUEZ: I was really just expecting to get out of my shell a little bit more. I used - in middle school, was really an introvert.

MCCAMMON: And they each described the moment in March 2020 when those plans began to unravel. Press conferences from officials, emails from school administrators - schools were shut down. Spring breaks were extended - at first, just for a couple of weeks, they said.

VELASQUEZ: And we really all thought we were going to go back after those two weeks.

MCCAMMON: Instead, of course, schools went virtual. The pandemic would make a permanent mark on each of the students, beginning with those first days of remote learning. And that's where our conversation starts.

How did you adjust as it became clear that this was not just an extended spring break, this was something more?

VELASQUEZ: For me, I would say it was difficult because I live in an apartment, so I share a room with my two other siblings. So it was really hard to - for our Wi-Fi also to maintain all three of us in class without it disconnecting. So it was very hard to actually participate because most of the time, you would get, like - your microphone would malfunction, or your video would just cut off and all that. And my school noticed it before the end of the school year. They managed to get me a hotspot that I could use to connect my laptop personally so no one else was on it.

MCCAMMON: And were your - you said two siblings you share with or...

VELASQUEZ: Yeah.

MCCAMMON: Were your siblings also trying to study in that same room?

VELASQUEZ: Well, we were placed in different parts of the house. My brother, as the oldest, took the desk. My sister took the dining room table. And then I was stuck in my parents' bedroom. So I was also on top of a bed, which is kind of like, you know, on a bed, you really do get comfy and don't really want to work. So it was really hard for me to actually find the motivation to actually not open another tab that wasn't for school and just actually pay attention to the teacher.

REESE: This is Jamari. For myself, honestly, it wasn't really me adjusting by choice. We were forced to learn self-discipline, as we didn't have the motivation from adults in our lives to really keep going. It was very difficult because the learning experience wasn't the same. We weren't really required to learn the way we needed to in person because our teachers could have been websites or Google.

MCCAMMON: Arnav, what was your experience like?

DARMAGATA: Learning turned into very much, like, checking boxes off to reach the end of the year. I remember most of my classes were through software. They weren't actual live classes. And it was just a game of trying to get through all the content that was required. And so I would speed through videos, and I would finish assignments as quickly as possible just to say that I've done them and be done with it. I think, like, the joy of learning and the social aspect of it was lost.

MCCAMMON: And do you feel like you've been able, since you've gone back to in-person classes, to regain that joy of learning that you described?

DARMAGATA: I think it's - yeah. I think I have regained that joy of learning, just being around people and being in community with each other. You kind of have this shared experience or the shared desire to gain knowledge and to learn, and we lost that when we transitioned to virtual learning.

MCCAMMON: Jamari, what was it like for you when you transitioned back to a more typical classroom setting?

REESE: So initially, my first year of going back to in-person learning was my junior year, which was 11th grade. But for me, it was pretty weird because I'd say I had, like, one or two days of being back in person and finding out who my teachers are. And then I get an email, along with a couple of other students, who were told that we had to stay home for two weeks. And all of us were like - we coordinated with each other because some of us knew who the others were. And we're like, we have to stay home. Why do we have to stay home? And so...

MCCAMMON: They didn't even tell you exactly why at first?

REESE: No. Like, they had a - at first, they - what they'd do is they would say our names on the intercom. Jamari Reese and so and so and so and so and so and so, come down to the main office. And they told us that they were like, due to you guys being exposed, you guys have to go home. And we were like, we just got back to school. And so for me, I was like, 16 hours' worth of school, and now I'm back online? And...

MCCAMMON: How did that feel?

REESE: It felt really isolating. I could tell that they were trying their best to keep us safe, but I'm, like, one of two juniors that had to stay home for two weeks. And when we came back, everyone was happy to see us. But they were two weeks ahead of making those connections with everybody else than we were, being stuck at home again alone.

MCCAMMON: It was such a chaotic time. I mean, Gabby, how did things unfold at your school when it was time to go back?

VELASQUEZ: The only good thing kind of was that they offered hybrid models. So it's not like we were forced to go back in person, especially for those that were really cautious about COVID. But I really chose to go in person. Like, my parents gave me the choice if I wanted to stay online or go. And I was like, I really am not learning. Like, I have to go in person, or else I don't know how sophomore year is going to go.

So it was very good that I was able to go back in person. But at the same time, just since I wasn't able to develop a lot more connections because of the pandemic, it really - my social life really lacked when we went back to school. Like, I was really just - did not talk at all. Sure, I, like, participated in class every now and then, but I, like, wasn't talking to any friends or all that. So it was really hard.

MCCAMMON: You know, you each have mentioned feeling like you were missing out or falling behind or both, you know, in some way at school, socially, academically, whatever the case may be. Do you feel like you've caught up?

DARMAGATA: This is Arnav. I feel like once I returned back to school, I kind of had this reignited desire to catch up. And that's both academically and socially. So I remember seeking out harder classes and trying to get the most of that learning experience. And socially, I started going to football games and school dances just because I understood the importance of that social connection more from being deprived of it.

MCCAMMON: Gabby?

VELASQUEZ: I feel like it was a little bit difficult. Like, I didn't go - like, even though I had chances to go to dances junior year and all that, I didn't choose to go to any of them until this year. So I've only gone to three. You know, like, when I first - when I went to my first football game this year, it was really new. But at the same time, I could see how everyone else around me was kind of already used to going to football games and the ambience it had. So it was really new to get - to just see that happen. For me, it was like, oh, damn, I've been missing out on this, like, the past four years. Like, I don't know why I didn't do this sooner.

REESE: I agree with both of you guys. It was a different urgency to catch up. Academically, it was more of a struggle for me because I was not really required to learn to learn online. For me, I think the hardest thing was, like, my math class because I was on an accelerated path with math, and then I ended up taking a normal math in my senior year because it was really difficult for me to stay on my accelerated path as I was not getting back into my learning quickly. Like, I didn't learn as quick as I used to when it comes to math, because there was a time period where I didn't have to learn.

MCCAMMON: This, of course, was all happening because of COVID, coronavirus. And a couple of you have mentioned the fear of, you know, getting sick or transmitting something to somebody else. On top of all of the school-related stress, the virus itself was a concern for a lot of people. You know, there was a point at the height of the pandemic where there were thousands of people dying every day. How much of a worry was that for each of you?

REESE: For me, this is going to sound a little bit ignorant, I guess, but I was told that COVID was happening in freshman year, but they weren't really making a focus on the virus itself. Like, it was all school. Like, OK, now we're going to be in school learning. And it took me connecting with my family members again to see how much it really impacted the people that were nearby for me to see how intense it was. I had some family members passed away from COVID, and so I think my panic happened a little bit later. It was a little bit delayed, I guess, because it took me having to see that it could happen to me, and it could happen to people I'm close to.

MCCAMMON: Yeah. Gabby?

VELASQUEZ: Well, I was kind of the same when we were still in school. Like, until summer break, I was focused on school. Once we were, like, out of classes and all that, I was really scared to the point I did not like having the news on because that was really kind of all you heard about, how many people were dying every day because of the virus. Even my mom noticed. Like, I was getting just so anxious to the point I was having some anxiety attacks every now and then just because I'm just like, when is this going to happen to me? Like, I wasn't thinking, like, if. It was like, is it - like, when is it going to happen?

MCCAMMON: I'm sorry it was so scary.

VELASQUEZ: It was scary.

MCCAMMON: Arnav, how about you?

DARMAGATA: I remember feeling frustrated a lot, especially towards the end, once we had our vaccines available and once testing was available. I remember feeling frustrated because, you know, all this sadness, all the suffering, we had endured it. And now we finally had a solution, but it didn't seem like people were taking it. There was a lot of apprehensiveness. And it was just frustrating to know that there's a solution there, but people aren't willing to do it.

MCCAMMON: You know, I know each of you are headed to college. As you think back on high school, your unique historic high school experience, is there anything that came out of this experience that you see as maybe positive or just that taught you something that you'll take into the future?

DARMAGATA: I think one thing that I valued about the pandemic and virtual learning was the idea that you had flexibility in what you could do and how you wanted to manage your time. And I think that flexibility is really similar to how college classes are going to run, where you're on your own and you manage your time outside of class by yourself. It made me more responsible, and it made me more prepared, I think, for college.

VELASQUEZ: Well, I also agree with what Arnav said. Like, it really did make us - and I - for sure made me more independent from my parents or more than I usually was already. So it was really nice but hard just seeing my parents just realize that I didn't really need their help anymore. Like, I could figure out everything, which is going to help in college because I won't have, like, people handing me resources. Like, from now on, I'm going to have to be, like, looking for them.

REESE: I agree with what both of you guys said. You were forced to have independence. And I think because all of us were kind of forced to be thrown in water, it was kind of like a sink or swim. And all of us learned how to swim, you know? And also, for me, I don't know if this is the same for you guys, but I became more one with myself. I was able to find out who I was because I had so much time with who I was. And so, like, I'm walking in confident in my ability to be able to soar because I was able to soar through this. We're like, OK, give it to us. We know how to handle ourselves because we had to handle ourselves before.

MCCAMMON: I've been talking with Jamari Reese, Arnav Darmagata and Gabby Velasquez. Thanks so much to all three of you.

REESE: Thank you, guys.

DARMAGATA: Thank you for having us.

VELASQUEZ: Thank you for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.