What happened to America’s teens when coronavirus disrupted high school?

Nearly half of teens said the pandemic had a negative impact on their academics

By Moriah BalingitOctober 29, 2021 at 8:03 a.m. EDT Washington Post

Before the pandemic, high school had been defined for millions of teenagers by familiar rituals: meeting new friends, big games, agonizing over college admissions, prom, yearbook signing, graduations, tearful goodbyes.

Now, the pandemic has become the signature feature of high school for this cohort of adolescents. The forced isolation and lockdowns wrought havoc on teenage lives and shaped them in ways they will never forget.

Unlike adults, many of the eventsand milestones they missed out on are irretrievable. Vacationsand family reunions can be rescheduled. But once a school year is lost, it is gone forever.

Some teens were forced to grow up faster because of the pandemic. Teenagers became de facto caretakers for younger siblings. They became activists, moved to protest in the streets by the murder of George Floyd. They got jobs to support families when the breadwinners were out of work. And as many as 140,000 children lost a parent or caretaker to covid-19.

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Against this backdrop, some teens struggled in school, many of them managing virtual classes with teachers who were learning on the fly. Students who were lucky enough to return to in-person classes still had to contend with being quarantined or having their schools shut down. But amid this doom and gloom, there was a silver lining: Some students actually liked remote learning. They preferred being home, or having the flexibility, or feeling less frantic about college. Students who felt chronically overscheduled finally had time to stop and breathe. For some, that space allowed them time to figure out who they were.

For students already facing challenges in school, the shutdowns and virtual learning often made things worse.Some students stopped showing up altogether, or did so infrequently. Experts fear dropout rates will rise.

Now, the vast majority of teenagers have returned to classrooms. In September, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told Congress that 96 percent of schools were back in-person.

About half of teens age 14 to 18 said the pandemic had a negative impact on their academics, according to a Washington Post-Ipsos poll. A third said it had no impact, and about 1 in 6 said it had a positive impact. Teens in urban communities were more likely than those in rural communities to say the impact was negative.

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The poll revealed other fault lines: Nearly a quarter of teens of color said the pandemic had a positive impact on their academics — compared with 14 percent of White teens.

So what, exactly, was happening when high school was disrupted for millions of teenagers? Five young people give us some insights into how the pandemic affected their academics — and the things they learned outside of the classroom.

Catherine Wong, 15, 10th grade, Los Altos High School in Los Altos, Calif.

I was in eighth grade when the pandemic started. I was really happy, actually, when the schools first closed down. There was absolutely no organization, so basically there was no school. Before the pandemic, my whole life was basically homework and getting good grades. I would sometimes work until 11 p.m. It was very high-stress.

But when high school started virtually, it was just less serious. It was more, like, stress-free and flexible. They shortened the amount of time that we had in school. The tests were open-book, so they weren’t really reflections of how much you could memorize. It was just more about applying what you learned. Most of my classes didn’t have finals because my teachers all decided to be nice about it because of covid. They were actively trying to help us not fail.

It kind of made me see how crazy I was before — like, every single day I’d be doing homework forever. It was kind of obsessive. But during virtual school, I had a lot more free time. I did a lot of clubs. I did speech and debate, mock trial. I started knitting.

Now that I’m back in school, a lot of my teachers enforce the fact that they’re reverting back to how it was before the pandemic. It’s pretty stressful. The homework load is definitely a lot more. But I’m not as stressed out as I was before. My focus is less on good grades now regarding colleges because over the pandemic, I was able to see how they don’t only care about good grades. There are other factors that come into play.

I think, to an extent, I don’t want my life to be just “you got to get good grades.”

Gemma Lim, 16, 11th grade, Syosset High School in Syosset, N.Y.,

When I was at home, it was hard to not only pay attention but understand what was happening in school. Being at home every day felt monotonous. So I just had no motivation to do anything in school.

When virtual learning first started, I tried brushing my teeth, getting dressed and going downstairs to eat breakfast before going to class. But after a while, I just started getting out of bed. My procrastination got worse, and I started turning in assignments late. I was supposed to be taking this hands-on class where we would be building sets for the school plays. But since I wasn’t there, all I did was watch them build sets from home, on my computer. I couldn’t do anything from home. I just sat in silence the whole period.

Everyone was still trying to figure out how everything worked. One of my teachers didn’t realize that they were muted. So the whole class, we couldn’t hear them. And I guess they had our volume off, so they couldn’t hear us. So it was kind of just us waving on our cameras and being like, “Hey, you’re muted!” Chemistry was really hard. Our teacher would walk around to the front of the class to write on the board. And since her computer was in one spot, I wouldn’t be able to hear her.

I had to go to a lot of guidance counselor meetings because my grades were dropping. All I could do is sit there and be like, “How the heck did this happen?” And then, “How do I fix it?” But also, in my head I was like, “Why did I do this to myself?” I did so horribly, and I can never get those grades back. The counselor asked me how I felt. I was staring at her over the Google Meet because I couldn’t answer her. I don’t know how I feel.

During class I would listen, but it felt like everything was going in one ear and out the other, and I couldn’t keep any of the information. Before the pandemic, I loved playing the violin. Then when the pandemic came, I had no motivation, and then on top of that everything just felt like work. So playing the instrument just wasn’t fun anymore for me.

When school reopened last school year, I had the option of going back to in-person classes. ButI didn’t want to go back to school. I honestly didn’t want to see my teachers because I knew that they knew that I was failing, and I didn’t want to see them face to face after that.

I’m trying to think of something positive. I was able to talk to my friend who was in my class, and made my friendship better with her. I probably wouldn’t have learned that I like creative writing. Being in that class was really nice. But other than that, it just kind of passed very quickly. So many people are saying how 2020 just didn’t exist. There is not much I can say that is positive about it.

Tala Saad, 16, 11th grade, Kentucky Country Day School in Louisville

Strictly numbers-wise, I think it negatively impacted my academics. I’m starting to find out this year that there’s a lot of foundational stuff that we just didn’t have the time to get to in a virtual setting. Virtual school was definitely more challenging. Just trying to focus on what was happening virtually … there was always something chaotic globally happening that was drawing your attention away from school.

French was one of the most difficult subjects to learn virtually. Just kind of the stress of learning a world language through a virtual setting, when so much of it is dependent on context and talking to people and engaging yourself in the language. During my French final freshman year, my WiFi kept cutting out, my computer was dying, and the paper I was writing on, the ink smeared. My teacher called me after watching me through the Google Meet. She said: “You know, I can see you’re clearly stressed. You’re panicking. Go outside. Take a walk.” She let me retake the test.

Then we get to sophomore year, and we’re still virtual, and it just kind of felt like this was never-ending. You know, I think people, including myself, were genuinely thinking that we were going to go through all four years of high school online. And you know, it’s the time that everybody’s like, “These are some of the best years of your life.” And all of the sudden, your time got so much shorter.

Did the pandemic change me? Oh, 100 percent. I used to be an athlete, and that was my main thing before this. There was school, and there was soccer. I was always interested in engineering, and so when we went virtual, I took home the school’s 3-D printer. My dad is a pulmonologist, and he is in the covid unit. They needed face shields. So I started printing them. What was meant to be like 15 or 20 face shields, just to see if we could do it, exploded into over 600.

I’m part of the Kentucky Student Voice Team. We serve as advocates for students across Kentucky. I wish that policymakers would listen to us more. The absolutely critical part that somehow people seem to keep missing is — go to the students, talk to the students. Because nobody knows what’s best for students and what the students need better than the students themselves.

Liv Koulish, 18, freshman, New York University (2021 graduate of Baltimore City College high school)

I would say it’s way more nuanced than just negative or positive. I can’t tell you one thing I learned on virtual school, but I can tell you a whole bunch of things that I learned about myself and about the world around me — which I feel like in a lot of ways, it’s a lot more important than the stuff that we were learning in school at that time.

Still, I feel like doing virtual school was actually in some ways very helpful for me because it gave me more time by myself to kind of explore what I personally wanted to do. Before the pandemic, I was very involved in a lot of things in my school. I was a very social person.

I used to run track and play lacrosse, and I would always be at school. I would have to wake up very early to take a 5 a.m. bus. After school I would either have a meeting with [youth activist group] GoodKids MadCity or speech and debate, and then I would rush off to sports practice. I was absolutely exhausted.

When the pandemic happened, it really slowed me down. I’m trans, and I feel like being alone for the past two years has helped me come to terms with it. As a nonbinary person of color, there was a lot I hadn’t unpacked. I was struggling a lot with just understanding myself as a trans person and understanding that it was okay to be trans, like, period. High school is intense — like, it is not a safe place to figure out who you are as a trans person.

But I also failed a class for the first time. I was busy finishing up requirements for my International Baccalaureate diploma, and a month later I got my report card, and it said I was failing English. And I was like, what? Apparently there was some diorama we had to do, and I didn’t end up doing it.

I’m starting to really love the person I’m becoming. And I feel like I wouldn’t have started to become this person if it weren’t for the pandemic. So yes, it comes with some baggage, but at the same time I kind of found some beauty about it in some ways.

Mandell Blackstone, 17, junior, Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans

I started off sophomore year at Benjamin Franklin virtually. We took four classes a semester, and instead of 90-minute classes, they were 45 minutes. It was less overwhelming. But it was strange starting a new school virtually. I went to campus to grab a laptop from the school, and other than that, I only went onto campus for basketball. Other than that, nobody was really on campus.

I had to take a shower, get something to eat and make sure I got everything ready for the day after. And then I had to do my homework. I would usually stay up until 1 a.m. When they went online, it was a big change for everyone. It was way more work than in-person.

One of the main struggles was being able to stay focused while also at home and being able to sit in front of the screen and just listen. Sometimes it would just go in one ear and out the other. It was a bit difficult. I was not good at paying attention on virtual.

Sophomore year, I didn’t really socialize as much because we were mostly online. You just see people’s faces in a box. You don’t really talk to them that much. Junior year, that’s when I started to socialize more in-person because in-person is really my thing. Some people like socializing online, but in-person is my forte.

The biggest challenge of the pandemic was not that I was depressed but just, every day became the same thing. It kind of became, like, boring and saddening because this isn’t what I’m used to. This isn’t what I want. Mental health and staying focused, all of that was a bit challenging. Just waking up and going on a computer screen for hours — it was very challenging.

The pandemic definitely changed how schoolwork and classwork were distinguished, and how it was given and received. Covid gave them the chance to see that, hey, our kids actually learn better when they have a little bit of a break. So now on Fridays no homework can be assigned, and we just review.P

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By Moriah BalingitMoriah Balingit is an education reporter for The Washington Post, where she has worked since 2014. She previously covered crime, city hall and crime in city hall at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  Twitter