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“This past year was very much a blur”: High school students reflect on a pandemic school year

Headshot of high school students, Jane and Nawaff.
Courtesy Photos

There’s never been a last day of school quite like this one. Students and teachers throughout Michigan are nearing the finish line, with many keen to put the 2020-2021 pandemic school year behind them. Stateside caught up with two high schoolers about how the COVID-19 public health crisis has shaped their education and shifted their perspectives this year. We’ll be using just their first names to protect their privacy as minors.

“This past year was very much a blur,” said Nawaff, a senior about to graduate from a public high school in Dearborn.

Nawaff took classes in person for part of the academic year in a hybrid learning model. He said the experience didn’t completely align with his expectations: many students opted to stick with virtual learning, so there were only a few students present in person in each classroom. In person or not, everyone was on Zoom.

“It kind of took more motivation to focus and tune in to a computer screen rather than in person, face to face,” he said. “But nonetheless, our teachers did a great job teaching and carrying on through this pandemic.”

Jane just finished her junior year, which was entirely online, at a public high school in Kalamazoo. She recorded some of her experiences from the past year in a radio diary produced with Michigan Radio. She told Stateside that the past year wasn’t very interesting, academically and personally.

“I found myself jumping a lot from different — mostly video games, I'm going to be honest — but just different interests that could keep me, like, sucked in for like a week, two weeks,” Jane said. “Just to keep me interested and not, like, rotting in my bed.”

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Before COVID-19 hit Michigan, Jane was involved with extracurricular activities like Model United Nations and theatre. She said it wasn’t as easy to take part in those programs amid the pandemic. But, she added, she did join the tennis team, which practiced with face masks this year.

Nawaff said that, outside of academics, he primarily focused on his job at his uncle’s restaurant, as well as spending time with friends — when he felt he could do so safely.

“I think it was best to be careful, for myself and those around me, to not put myself out there as much as I wanted to,” he said. “When the vaccines came out and everyone started getting vaccinated and whatnot, things got a little more loose, so that's some good news.”

For many people, learning or working remotely this year introduced a new challenge into their daily lives: Zoom fatigue. Jane said that, after a prolonged period without the face-to-face interactions she was used to in her classes, she realized she was dealing with burnout related to virtual school.

Two computers situated on a desk, one on top of an encyclopedia.
Credit Courtesy Photo
Jane's virtual school set-up.

“In person, you have to interact with people all day, but I'm just a naturally social person, so being able to actually talk to people really helped go against my burnout [before the pandemic],” Jane said. “But being stuck at my desk for many hours and just doing school by looking at the screen, I wasn't talking to anyone except maybe once, to answer questions in class. So, you know, it's a lot easier for me to get burnt out because I'm like, jeez, I'm not seeing anyone or having any connections.”

Jane said one thing she’s found particularly tough to navigate this year has been late work. Some of her teachers have accepted it all year, and some haven’t, she explained.

“Even if your teachers are accepting of late work, it's still very stressful to have like five missing assignments that are all super long. It makes you not want to do it. So I've been, you know, piling up a little bit,” she said.

Nawaff said that if he could go back and give himself some advice about how to approach the pandemic school year, he’d suggest finding ways to make the most of it — despite the circumstances.

“Being [in] my last year of high school, I'd definitely say enjoy it. This is the last year or so where you get to see all your friends and family at such a high rate. ... Don't take any of that time for granted, even though it is under tougher conditions,” he said. “It's definitely going to be a fun thing to look back on 20, 30 years down the line, telling your kids and grandkids that you went to school, you know, during a pandemic.”

For more, listen to the full conversation above.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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