High school seniors tend to be busy as their school year winds down. Busy might be an understatement for this class. Maybe frenzied is a better word.
“Soccer makes my schedule during the week a little crazy, and I have senior play stuff during the day on Saturday,” one student texted when trying to schedule an interview for this article. Another emailed: “Next week is pretty packed for me with rehearsals for our school’s musical and the performance.”
But these young people aren’t complaining. When they were freshmen three years ago, they saw their schools shut down suddenly as COVID-19 restrictions were enacted. Instead of participating in extracurriculars and hanging out with friends between classes, they were figuring out online learning and feeling isolated from the world.
“Just being at home all the time, I felt like I was missing out on everything, the high school experience,” says Evan Wilker, an Asheville High senior.
A sense of normalcy has returned to their lives. Mask mandates and social distancing are gone. The seniors are enjoying proms, plays, sports and all the things they saw get canceled or scaled down for earlier classes. And while they know the pandemic will always be a part of their high school memories, they are focused on the future.
“I don’t want to say we’ve moved on from this, but we have tried to move forward,” says Laura Shelton, a senior at Hendersonville High School.
As graduation day approaches, Xpress sat down with eight local members of the class of ’23 to look back on their experiences of attending four years of high school in the era of COVID.
Excitement, then confusion
When area schools shut down on March 16, 2020, most freshmen weren’t concerned. In fact, many thought a two-week break sounded pretty good.
“I actually was really excited, and I guess that’s how every kid was,” recalls Devon Davis, now a North Buncombe High senior. “But I don’t think we realized how long we were going to be out and how much that would affect us in the long run and how far behind that we would be when we came back. “
As weeks turned into months and schools attempted to hold classes online, falling behind became a major problem.
“The teachers tried their best, they really did, but it just was not a very smooth transition because no one had ever done what we were doing before,” says Montana Gura, a student at the School of Inquiry and Life Sciences at Asheville. “Some of the teachers were really excellent about having Google Meets every single class period, and they would talk to us and everything. And then some teachers kind of fell off the grid, and we never heard from them again. Same with the students.”
Adds Davis: “It was all really complicated to figure out by yourself, to try to learn new technology. There were so many flaws that you couldn’t control, and I guess it stressed everyone out, especially the teachers. I found it very difficult.”
Raina Markulis, an Asheville High senior, remembers some teachers saying only third-quarter grades, already locked in, would count. “So, there wasn’t really this incentive to do work because nobody knew what was going on and if it counted for grades or had any impact. It was a very confusing time.”
On top of that, students soon became bored staying home all the time.
“At some point, we realized that we were missing out on the general expectations we had for high school,” says Elijah Simon, a student at Brevard High. “[We had] the idea that we’d go to class, we’d meet new people in person, we’d have clubs or extracurriculars that we’d meet people through. Stuff like that wasn’t really available.”
A lost year
By the 2020-21 school year, administrators and teachers had a better handle on technology and schedules. Depending on the district and on personal choice, students spent the entire year doing distance learning or attended school a few days a week with smaller class sizes for parts of the year. The length of the school day and the length of classes were shorter than normal. Extracurriculars, including sports, even came back in some form.
Still, more than one student described it as a “lost year” when they didn’t learn as much as they should have.
“My mental health got to a point where I didn’t feel capable of keeping up with my classwork and engaging with school at all,” says Sophie Davis, a student at SILSA. “I definitely have had to do more reviewing this year of the math concepts that I should have learned in sophomore year.”
Brevard’s Simon had a similar experience, quitting the soccer team and generally feeling disengaged. “I made it through the classes during COVID, and I ‘learned things’ according to whatever test I passed. But when I try to think about what I learned in American history during my sophomore year, I really can’t pinpoint any of that information.”
Many students didn’t participate in online classes or turned off their cameras and napped during the 45-minute sessions.
“It was just very awkward, and the teachers were so frustrated with everyone because no one would do their work,” North Buncombe’s Davis says.
Adds Asheville High’s Wilker: “Being apart from other people just made it hard to process everything. The fact school was literally just laying in your bed and rotting away the whole day while staring at a computer was terrible for my mental health.”
Hendersonville’s Shelton agrees the odd circumstances had a detrimental effect on the mental health of students, but she sees a silver lining.
“Prior to COVID, [mental health] wasn’t discussed as much in schools,” she explains. “But now I’m seeing the guidance counselors trying to talk to people about mental health and giving people mental health resources.”
Students were glad to return to a more-or-less normal school environment in 2021-22, but the transition wasn’t always easy. “You missed a lot of fundamental social skills [when learning online], developing those strong bonds with your friends, which is really what hit me my junior year,” says Grace Ellen Callihan, a SILSA student. “We all felt like sophomores.”
Brevard’s Simon says his group of friends changed entirely after returning to in-person learning. “I don’t know if that was me just aging or a mixture of both, but I think being home and not being around a school environment can affect how we react to social situations.”
As their time in high school comes to an end, this year’s seniors have gained perspective on the things they experienced early on. For one thing, they understand better what the classes of 2020 and 2021 missed out on.
“I just can’t imagine getting prepared for prom and buying your dress and then having that all canceled,” Shelton says. “And I can’t imagine missing graduation after you’ve been working four years for it. I didn’t even really fully grasp how big a deal that was as a freshman.”
Additionally, she and others believe younger students have had it harder than they have.
“There seems to be kind of a maturity drop-off in the sophomores and freshmen because they’ve missed developmental years in middle school,” Shelton says. “So, we’re seeing a lot more behavioral stuff than we had in the past because they didn’t really have a middle school experience.”
As Callihan puts it: “As far as our class, I think we ended up in the luckiest situation.”
Fellow SILSA senior Gura believes living through a pandemic has brought members of the class of 2023 closer. And while she doesn’t think the experience will overshadow their good memories, she expects the topic to come up at class reunions.
“I think above everything else, we’re just going to reminisce about how the world completely changed when we were 16,” she says.