In turbulent school year, high schoolers navigate campus reopening plans, cancelled events and changes to social life

Upperclassmen from St. Mark's School of Texas in Dallas, which has reopened with guidelines, play spikeball while maintaining social distancing norms.
Photo by Sal Hussain.

BY WILLA POLAND-MCCLAIN   NOV. 22, 2020
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When schools across the United States originally closed due to COVID-19, many students and teachers believed that they would return to normal school in a few weeks. But after eight months of an unprecedented global pandemic, school is far from normal.

According to a nationally representative June 2020 study of youth, “30% of young people say they have more often been feeling unhappy or depressed,” since their school buildings closed, and 23% of students reported feeling not connected at all to their classmates. Many schools are employing full or partial virtual school models, which leave students navigating the social pressures of high school from at least six feet apart.

“In most of my classes, I don’t even know the names of the other students,” Ian Clark, a student at James H. Blake High School in Maryland, said. “There is a virtual barrier between us that makes it difficult to feel like I have a connection with any of them.”

Beginning in March, high school students began missing out on milestones; sports seasons, school dances, academic competitions, and graduations were cancelled or made virtual because of the pandemic.

“It’s definitely going to suck to miss out on Cotil, our annual formal dance,” Felipe Lopez, a student at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, said. “I was really excited as this was my first year being able to go, but it’s not looking like we’re going to be able to do it this year, which is very disappointing.”

Teachers also lament these losses. “There’s a real sense of pride in looking at your graduating class as they navigate their last year, and all the teachers are losing out on that,” Jamie Incorvia, a high school teacher at Cleveland High School in Oregon, said.

In order to cope with event cancellations and school closures, some students have chosen to recreate coming-of-age high school events. However, such events have the potential to spread the coronavirus when they don’t follow Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines. On Sept. 25, for example, a New York teen’s sweet 16 birthday party drew 81 attendees and was linked to 37 coronavirus cases, resulting in a “superspreader” event.

As such, students may face consequences for hanging out in large groups.

“My friends did a homecoming and one of them ended up testing positive,” Anna De Marco, a Kirkwood High School senior, said. According to De Marco, who lives in Missouri, all of the students were barred from returning to school until they were tested and didn’t exhibit any symptoms.

However, the hardships caused by the coronavirus go beyond the disappointment of missing out on these moments. Students who previously relied on their school for meals may experience increased food insecurity, and many students have been impacted by the job losses caused by the pandemic. According to a 2020 study on the effect of quarantine on teens, 33% of teens who worried that their families would not have enough food were depressed, compared to 14% of teens who were not worried about that issue. Additionally, “[25%] of teens reporting that a parent had lost a job during the pandemic were depressed, compared to only 16[%] of those without parental job loss,” according to the study.

Students from Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California, participate in a socially distanced rock-painting activity meant to spread uplifting messages in the community.
Photo by Joshua Yang.

Citing concerns about students’ mental and physical wellbeing, some school districts across the United States have decided to reopen their schools. As of October 5, 2020, Arkansas, Iowa, Texas, and Florida had mandated that schools remain open, according to CNN. Meanwhile, the majority of states have left COVID-19 decisions up to individual school districts. Seven states have mandated partial school closures, while only the District of Columbia has ordered full school closures.

De Marco’s school recently returned to in-person learning.

“I’ve already noticed after just a few days of being back in-person that in-person school is so much better for personal connection,” she said. “Even though it’s only been three days, I’ve already connected with my teachers way more than the past nine weeks or so that we were in virtual school.”

Yet school reopenings have drawn criticism. Thomas Li, a senior at Henry M. Gunn High School in California, has opposed his school district’s proposed reopening plan. “The top priority for reopening schools should be to serve the students who are struggling the most with distance learning,” he said. “My concern is that the plan [my school district has just] created does not meet those needs.”

Regardless of whether students’ schools have re-opened or remained closed, the reality is that the coronavirus is far from eradicated. Over the past 14 days, coronavirus cases in the US spiked, with 166,226 reported cases on Nov. 16 alone. Indeed, the superintendent of Li’s school district later announced it was “highly unlikely” the reopening plan would proceed, given the surrounding county’s growing COVID-19 case count.

Because of this, many students are finding ways to connect virtually or from a safe distance. Video games such as Among Us and Jackbox games have gained popularity since the first cases of the coronavirus reached the United States. Max Chaung, a student at St. Mark’s School of Texas, has connected with his peers through playing video games during the pandemic. “That’s probably the only way to bond if you’re not going out in person,” he said.

Some sports teams unable to practice virtually have also begun playing again with additional safety protocols in place. Luca Utterwulghe, a student at Albert Einstein High School in Maryland, has continued to play soccer while following COVID sporting guidelines.

“I feel that my physical well-being is essential to my mental well-being, although I understand that there are other ways in which I can remain physically active,” he said. “If officials tell us that soccer games are unsafe, I will be sure to stop playing, but as of now, the activity is permissible,” he says.

The Northview Varsity Football team in Johns Creek, Georgia, plays at a conference home game. Northview High School has fully resumed athletics with minimal restrictions.
Photo by Jennifer Xia.

As students navigate the challenges brought by COVID-19, maintaining their physical and emotional well-being is imperative. For many students, this requires engaging in social activities and relationships. “Learning how to navigate the inner webs of relationships happens in high school,” Dr. Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis, said in a New York Times article. “When you retreat behind a computer, you lose some of those social skills.”

However, many students recognize that they must also make decisions that keep themselves and their communities safe. “I know that a majority of us are worried about college and trying to put sports and all these extracurriculars on our [college] applications,” said Hiruni Sumanasiri, a student at Iowa City West High School. “But I think we need to realize that our health comes first.”