‘It’s just stressful’: Students feel weight of pandemic uncertainty

After months of distance learning, a hybrid in-person but not quite stable school year, and a fall semester that was just starting to feel a bit normal, Kyla Chester-Hopkins, a high school student from Milwaukee, learned that she had Covid-19.

Kyla, 16, was deeply anxious about passing it on to her family members. She feared that she had infected her best friend. So in early January, she stopped going to school and resumed online learning – stuck, once again, in the bedroom where she had already spent much of 2020.

At the time, she was at home with her father and four siblings, all but one of whom — her little brother — depended on the same Wi-Fi connection for work and learning. Mostly lacking art lessons, she took out her acrylic paints to make murals that spanned the walls and ceiling of her bedroom. She went back to school in the fall of 2020, but it was hybrid then, and most of her classmates weren’t there.

His junior year was better. Kyla recovered from her bout with Covid this month and is now back in class. But she feels the instability of her freshman and sophomore years isn’t over yet, and she’s still cautious.

“There are students who don’t wear their masks, or complain about wearing a mask, and I harass them,” she said. “People say I’m like another staff member at our school.”

School closures in the spring of 2020 have been quite hard on students. But this winter, as the Omicron variant led to an increase in the number of coronavirus cases, the disruptions began to look like they would never end. Some school districts have extended winter break or temporarily returned to remote learning. And some schools, already struggling with a nationwide labor shortage, have been forced to cancel classes after staff members called in sick.

Many students are still struggling to catch up academically after months of struggling to learn online, and some have changed schools or dropped out altogether.

And while most are back in class today, a deep sense of isolation persists. There are feelings of loneliness and anguish. Many students feel that a whole system has failed them, leaving them to take on additional responsibilities far beyond what is usually asked of young people.

For many students, the opening of schools last fall brought a sense of relief. Jordan Spencer, an aspiring marine biologist in Detroit, was eager to start his freshman year of high school in person after two years of distance learning, an isolated existence in which he was constantly distracted by video games and YouTube tutorials.

He maintained his grades but struggled to stay motivated while learning on his own in his room. Last year, his parents were happy to see him start at a high school that had more advanced grades and operated on a hybrid system where he could be in person a few days a week.

This school year, Jordan had a crush on a classmate (he hasn’t told her yet), attended homecoming prom, and made friends to roller skate with on the weekends.

But Jordan, 14, said he tried to remember how quickly the virus could wipe everything out. The warning signs are there: his neighborhood has moved away every Friday in December due to the surge in cases. And after the winter break, his school remained virtual until January 14. He waited patiently to see his friends again and show off his new kicks: a pair of Jordan 3 Retro sneakers in fir green, matching his school colors.

“I just get this experience of being back in school,” he said. “It’s like, ‘What if all this was taken from me again?'”

For many schools, the risk of infection has not been the only concern. Even in states that are determined to stay open, districts are facing staffing shortages and students and teachers are often absent.

Classrooms in Tulsa, Okla., are back in person after a year and a half of disruption caused by the pandemic. But this month, some schools have returned to distance learning, sometimes on a day by day base as they struggled with staff shortage and the growing number of cases.

Eight-year-old Graham Bevel, a third-grader there, was one of many students who had to pause in-person learning and return, temporarily, to virtual classes in recent weeks. He and his 5-year-old sister are back to the old routine: doing their homework together while their parents watch.

“I’m fine with it,” he said. “I’m a bit used to it now.”

And although Graham had his model trains and a “Harry Potter” book to occupy him at home, he was much happier going to class and seeing his friends again. “I missed them,” he said.

Reyes Pineda-Rothstein, an eighth grader in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, struggled to learn at home when his classes were held remotely in 2020. He said the virtual classroom isolated himself and was easily distracted from the lessons on his computer screen.

Reyes, 14, began returning to school during the spring semester last year. But it was part of a hybrid arrangement, and many of her classmates stayed home. He was happy to return to a more normal version of the in-person course last year.

But this month he felt ill, he said, and did not want to return until a rapid coronavirus test and PCR test came back negative.

“It’s way too risky,” he said of his decision to avoid school during this time. “Also, you couldn’t learn anything because you would be so nervous. And some of the kids at my school are really unreliable with masks on. »

So he stayed home for a few days, despite his deep distaste for online courses. “Almost everyone hates remote learning,” he said. “Well, some kids like it because they can goof off.”

For some students, the thought of moving away again brings up painful memories of the early months of the pandemic.

“We had a lot of homework, and it was all online,” said Kaitlyn Long-Cheng, a seventh-grader in Saline, Michigan. “And you had to figure it out yourself because you couldn’t ask questions or anything, because there was nobody there.”

Schools in Saline, a small town outside of Ann Arbor, had every intention of starting the school year in person. It was the reason Kaitlyn’s mother had moved the family there in the first place.

Before, when Kaitlyn attended school in Ann Arbor, the isolation and workload of virtual school took a toll on her mental and physical health. She became withdrawn and staring at the screen for hours every day caused such painful migraines that Kaitlyn had to be hospitalized.

She said things are better now that she is back in school, although some anxiety remains. This month, Kaitlyn stayed home for a day while her teachers tested new software, just in case classes had to be taught remotely again very soon. It made her nervous.

“I don’t want to end up in the hospital anymore, or anything,” she said.

As many students prepare for future shutdowns, some have lobbied for them.

Elizabeth Feng, a high school student from Oakland, California, a district that serves high number of Latino and black students and where most students benefit from a free or reduced price lunch – said remote learning left her disconnected during her sophomore year. But she also worried that in-person classes would expose her teachers and classmates to the virus.

“It’s kind of like a lose-lose situation,” said 16-year-old Elizabeth. “It’s like, which one are you willing to sacrifice?”

After returning to class last fall, she saw things that alarmed her: students were going to school in crowded buses, teachers didn’t have enough masks, and the outdoor spaces of the school were not used enough. This month, Elizabeth became one of more than 1,000 students in her district who signed a petition calling for a student walkout unless in-person safety measures are improved or schools return to remote learning.

Oakland students weren’t alone: ​​This month, walkouts in support of tougher safety measures took place in cities and towns across the United States, including in Texas, Minnesota and Maryland.

“A lot of students say they would rather be at home because they don’t want to risk their health or the health of their family members,” Elizabeth said, adding that schools could do a better job of supporting health. mentality of students during periods. distance learning.

The Oakland students who signed the petition came to a agreement in principle with the district, but their concerns are far from over. “It seems like a lot of people are stressed and behind on their assignments,” Elizabeth said, adding that Covid safety was still a major concern.

For the vast majority who are back in school across the United States, many are still catching up on schoolwork as they juggle security concerns, sporadic quarantines and staffing shortages.

They know that the next variant could turn everything upside down once again. And while many hope for lasting stability, the weight of uncertainty is heavy.

“We’re trying to pick up the pace of things and not necessarily be stuck in this pandemic loop,” Kyla said. “Because it’s been two years now, and we don’t know how long it’s going to be, and we don’t want it to be forever.”

Norma A. Roth