'The Semester Of COVID-19': The Toll Of The Pandemic On Students Canceled proms. Heightened anxiety. An uncertain future. Eight students reflect on a school year defined by the pandemic.
From NPR station

WAMU 88.5

NPR logo

'The Semester Of COVID-19': The Toll Of The Pandemic On Students

'The Semester Of COVID-19': The Toll Of The Pandemic On Students

'The Semester Of COVID-19': The Toll Of The Pandemic On Students

'The Semester Of COVID-19': The Toll Of The Pandemic On Students

Students across the region face a range of challenges as they finish out the school year remotely. From left: Anisha Poudel, Helena Aytenfisu and Jimmy Le. Photos courtesy Anisha Poudel, Helena Aytenfisu and Jimmy Le/Arrangement by Tyrone Turner hide caption

toggle caption
Photos courtesy Anisha Poudel, Helena Aytenfisu and Jimmy Le/Arrangement by Tyrone Turner

More than 800,000 public schoolchildren in the District, Maryland Virginia have spent more than two months learning from home. By June, some students will have spent nearly one-third of the 2019-2020 school year distance learning.

Eight students from across the D.C. region talked with WAMU about how distance learning and COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, have marked their lives.

One high school student, an immigrant from Central America, felt crestfallen he could not cross the graduation stage in June for his parents. Another student gardens outside her family's Maryland home to distract herself from the bleak headlines. One teenager said he left his family's townhouse in Northeast D.C. twice in one month.

Some students have not been able to keep up with class work, finding it difficult to focus when there is little academic pressure and schools are not penalizing them for missed work. Others, feeling unchallenged, have signed up for outside classes and activities.

Physically separated from their peers and teachers, some are struggling with stress and anxiety. They yearn for the small moments, the walk or bus ride to campus, chatting with friends after class. They miss school.

Raul Ochoa, Senior At Gaithersburg High School, Gaithersburg, Md.

Raul Ochoa envisioned striding across the graduation stage this spring for his parents, neither of whom finished elementary school in their native Honduras.

Raul Ochoa, 18, poses at the homecoming dance with his friend, Leyli Valladares. Courtesy of/Raul Ochoa hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of/Raul Ochoa

The school system in Montgomery County, like many across the region, has promised the Class of 2020 an in-person graduation ceremony once public health officials lift bans on mass gatherings.

But Ochoa said graduation will not feel the same without graduation parties and the other rites of passage that punctuate the last months of high school.

"It was a dream for many, many Hispanic students," he said. "We make it feel that it's an accomplishment for our parents."

Ochoa immigrated with his mother to Gaithersburg in 2014, joining his father in the United States after more than a decade apart. He was enrolled in classes for English Language Learners until the 10th grade, staying after school to talk with teachers and absorbing the English language quicker than was expected.

He spent much of high school devoted to academics and extracurricular activities. He was student body president last school year and, finally in his last semester, began to indulge.

He posed for photos with friends at the homecoming dance, filled weekends with bowling and skating. He awaited prom, eagerly.

"If we knew that March 13 was going to be that day that we were going to say goodbye to our teachers and friends, we would have done so much more," Ochoa said.

Ochoa said he is worried about classmates grappling with anxiety and depression because of the coronavirus. Students, he said, need teachers and mentors, "sending emails, just saying, 'hope you're doing okay.'"

Tory'elle Coleman, Sophomore At Phelps Ace High School, Washington, D.C.

Sixteen-year-old Tory'elle Coleman said he left his house twice in a month. He worries about the coronavirus spreading in his neighborhood. Courtesy of/Tory'elle Coleman hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of/Tory'elle Coleman

Many of Tory'elle Coleman's classes are hands-on — at least, they are supposed to be.

He attends a vocational high school where he learns carpentry and skills for working on heating and cooling systems. During the closure, he is learning material from instructional packets provided by D.C. Public Schools.

Very few, if any, of the assignments in the packets match the lessons Coleman said he was learning in class before schools closed.

"I feel like I'm missing out on a lot," he said.

Coleman did not have his own computer at home to complete assignments or attend virtual class lectures, so he uses a MacBook given to him by Life Pieces to Masterpieces, an organization that works with African American boys in D.C.'s poorest neighborhoods.

The District's school system, which estimated that about 30 percent of its more than 50,000 students do not have a device or WiFi at home, distributed tablets to students who needed them and is raising money to supply students with technology during the crisis.

At school, Coleman said teachers can collect students' phones to minimize distractions. But it is more challenging for his teachers to corral disruptive students on Microsoft Teams, an online platform the city school system uses for distance learning.

He wonders, "Will we ever go back to school?"

Tory'elle Coleman draws to relax. Photo courtesy of Tory'elle Coleman. Courtesy of/Tory'elle Coleman hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of/Tory'elle Coleman

Coleman has left his house just twice in the last month, once to attend the funeral of an aunt who he said died after experiencing an asthma attack. Only 10 people were allowed in the funeral home at a time, to comply with social distancing requirements.

At home, he worries. He is scared construction workers in the neighborhood will contract COVID-19, causing it to "spread like wildfire." He has comforted a friend whose grandmother was diagnosed with the disease.

"I feel like it's like that all around the ... Washington area right now," he said.

Lauren Perl, Junior At Poolesville High School, Poolesville, Md.

High school junior Lauren Perl worries the coronavirus will affect college admissions next year. Courtesy of/Lauren Perl hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of/Lauren Perl

On Monday mornings, Lauren Perl opens her email and panics.

Looking at assignments for the week piled up in her inbox, she frets that she is "not capable of finishing all of it." So she chips away at the work, "non, non-stop," from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day until the work is complete. She is usually done by Thursday.

"I am incredibly Type A," Perl said. "That comes with a lot of anxiety when it comes to work."

None of Perl's teachers are holding virtual lectures, she said. She finds herself learning new material for her demanding class schedule, which includes four Advanced Placement classes, on her own. She misses the intellectual rigor of classroom discussions in her law and African American history classes.

She has filled her time with more extracurricular activities, volunteering to work on federal affairs for a student-led national organization that advocates for Equal Rights Amendment legislation.

She is eyeing colleges in California, including the University of California campuses in Los Angeles and Berkeley. But Perl fears traditional benchmarks universities use to assess students' admissions applications will not carry much weight because of the pandemic.

Many colleges and universities made the SAT and ACT optional for the class of 2021, including the UC system, after the exams were called off in the spring.

In Montgomery County, the school system will allow students to choose how they want to be graded during the closure. Students can opt to take a pass or an incomplete, or a letter grade higher than the grade they received in the last grading period.

"I don't know what the admissions criteria is going to be for this upcoming year," Perl said. "So many factors that would normally be in play, are not."

James Gaston III, IT Trainee At Latin American Youth Center in Washington, D.C.

After graduating from KIPP DC College Preparatory, James Gaston attended Potomac State College in West Virginia for two years before returning to the District for financial reasons.

James Gaston III said began Information Technology training at Latin American Youth Center after bouncing around jobs. Courtesy of/James Gaston III hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of/James Gaston III

He spent some time cycling through jobs as a restaurant server, sanitation worker and in customer service before enrolling in the information technology program at the Latin American Youth Center, an alternative school that provides career training programs.

He pushes himself in school to "keep me and my family above water." He is nervous about the availability of jobs in a market ravaged by the coronavirus but tries not to dwell.

"I mean, you can't really live life like that," he said. "You kind of have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best."

Helena Aytenfisu, Junior At Richard Montgomery High School, Rockville, Md.

Helena Aytenfisu has maintained straight As in high school but lately she says she's had a hard time focusing. Courtesy of/Helena Aytenfisu hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of/Helena Aytenfisu

Helena Aytenfisu has maintained straight As throughout high school. Earlier this month, she took seven Advanced Placement exams, including Calculus BC, Physics and English Literature.

But, lately, she has found it hard to focus. She procrastinates on assignments, putting them off until she is forced to finish them all at once.

"It's going to be interesting to see how next year goes, considering I don't think I'm doing very well right now," Aytenfisu said. "I know it's not as much my fault as it is a result of the circumstances we're in."

At school, she visited teachers at lunch for extra help, which hasn't easily translated to online learning. She said some teachers have transitioned online seamlessly, uploading pre-recorded lectures. For others, she says, "it's kind of been a mess."

Aytenfisu's high school counselor encouraged her to start considering where she would like to apply for college. The 17-year-old said she is not too worried about the school closures affecting her admissions prospects.

"Colleges will be able to contextualize what's happening," she said. "They'll know this was the semester of COVID-19."

Her thoughts are preoccupied with the state of the world — the crashing economy, the developing countries that are less equipped to handle an outbreak.

Helena Aytenfisu gardens outside her family's home to cope with stress. Courtesy of/Helena Aytenfisu hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of/Helena Aytenfisu

She has started gardening to cope, tending to bell peppers and arugula to put her mind at ease.

"It's been nice to wake up every day and check up on my plants and see that they're growing and that there are good things in the world," she said.

Anisha Poudel, Senior At Stonewall Jackson High School, Manassas, Va.

In the early days of school closures, Anisha Poudel dwelled on all that she would miss — prom, graduation, the robotics competition she and her teammates spent months training for.

Now, she has started looking ahead. She is preparing for her first semester at the University of Virginia in the fall, where she plans to study aerospace engineering. She is taking online community college courses to bolster her physics and math skills.

"I'm kind of focusing on that instead of what we're not going to have," she said.

Anisha Poudel has started looking ahead to the fall, when she is expected to start at the University of Virginia. Courtesy of/Anisha Poudel hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of/Anisha Poudel

At school, Poudel said she was driven by deadlines. They motivated her to wake up in the morning and to keep going, she said.

She is enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program at Stonewall Jackson High. But, since IB exams were canceled, Poudel said her teachers have not demanded very much.

She is still given homework assignments and, occasionally, quizzes — all of which Poudel said are optional.

"It feels like there's almost nothing to do, at times," she said.

Lilly Shaw, Freshman At School Without Walls, Washington, D.C.

Lilly Shaw, 15, said she has more time to spend with family with schools closed. Courtesy of/Lilly Shaw hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of/Lilly Shaw

In her family's driveway, Lilly Shaw scrawled a message in chalk to front-line workers:

Thanks healthcare workers
Postal Services &
Sanitation Workers

When a sudden worry about the coronavirus invades her thoughts, the 15-year-old tries to maintain positivity. She feels fortunate to still have an education — even if it is remote, even if virtual classes on Zoom are sometimes punctuated by long, awkward silences or students talking over each other.

Supplies Shaw uses at home for distance learning. Courtesy of/Lilly Shaw hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of/Lilly Shaw

Shaw attends School Without Walls, a competitive public high school in D.C. with a rigorous admissions process.

She starts her weekdays at 8 a.m., spending her first two hours finishing assignments and completing a blogilates workout over WhatsApp with her cousin. She sets timers throughout her day to make sure she stays on task.

Her teachers generally have virtual lessons between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday. She meets with her math tutor for an hour, three times a week for extra help.

At school, Shaw said deadlines are shorter. She filled her time after school finishing homework, she said. Now, she has a week to finish some assignments

"Each day, now I can fork out a couple hours to spend with my family, maybe watch a show together or just eat together," she said.

Jimmy Le, Junior At Annandale High School, Annandale, Va.

After he learned schools had closed in Virginia, Jimmy Le paced the aisles of a Target store and "just started freaking out."

"I remember feeling so anxious," he said. "So many thoughts were running through my head like, 'What's going to happen?'"

Jimmy Le poses with a plant a friend gave him because Le was "going through a hard time." Courtesy of/Jimmy Le hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of/Jimmy Le

The pandemic has taken a toll on his mental health. In the beginning, Le said he felt the need to "grind," filling his extra time with more work and exercise. But he said he eventually became overworked.

He slowed down, picking up a guitar to relax.

He said he logs on to Zoom for weekly wellness meetings, gathering mental health tips and listening to psychologists. He has fallen behind on assignments, struggling to stay motivated because there are no repercussions for missing work.

Le said many of his friends have had to care for family members sickened by the coronavirus. The high school junior has also helped family, translating unemployment documents from English to Vietnamese.

"There's no way you can make school a priority right now," he said.

Questions or comments about the story?

WAMU 88.5 values your feedback.

From NPR station

WAMU 88.5