High school students talk about what it's like to come back

Students have missed going home, school trips and classes, while also dealing with anxiety and economic insecurity. Now they have to ju...


Students have missed going home, school trips and classes, while also dealing with anxiety and economic insecurity. Now they have to jump into the future, with the help of the school.


WATERBURY, Connecticut – This fall, there’s a surreal whirlwind of novelty and seniority in the halls of John F. Kennedy High School: Black Lives Matter face masks and the exhortations to lift them up – “On your nose, if it is. Please!” – but also ribs and laughs, ringing of bells, pass checks and call-code reminders over the loudspeakers (shirts with black or navy collars and khaki or black stockings).

Kennedy was open to in-person learning for most of the last school year. But families in this working-class predominantly Hispanic and black school district in Waterbury, Connecticut have pulled out in large numbers, with two-thirds of high school students completing last year entirely online.

This year, only students with serious health conditions can qualify for distance learning, and so far no Kennedy family has been approved.

This means that most of the juniors and seniors have returned to the building for the first time in 18 months. They are taller and more mature – sometimes physically unrecognizable, one adviser noted – but often reeling from what the coronavirus pandemic has brought about: anxiety, economic insecurity and academic struggle.

The school is teeming with more than 1,300 students, more than before the pandemic, due to the closure of a nearby Catholic school and an influx of families leaving New York City in search of affordable housing.

A majority of students are making up for missing credits from failed courses, according to principal Robert Johnston. Some are afraid to enter the crowded cafeteria, so they are allowed to eat and socialize in quiet classrooms. There have been a few fights, and it’s clear that some teens find it difficult to regulate their behavior after so much time at home, often isolated from their peers.

Before the pandemic, Kennedy was on a trajectory of improvement: the graduation rate fell from 73% in 2011 to 84% in 2019. Now that progress is under threat, with many students behind schedule. college or career. Some feel that after 18 months of computer-screen learning, they don’t know enough about teachers to ask for letters of recommendation. Many hope to become the first in their families to graduate from a four-year college.

“It’s a completely crazy experience,” said Mr Johnston as he stood in a hallway intersection directing students to the classrooms – many had forgotten how to navigate the building. “I’m still a little nervous. At the same time, it’s exhilarating. “

Here are the voices from Kennedy High School. The interviews have been edited.

Last year was the worst year of my life. It just caused, like, a really dark moment.

Seeing my friends had been the best part of my day. Go to school, hang, do whatever.

It was so exhausting being on social media; watching the phone screen all day. There was a lot of drama at the start. Your 40s caused you to lose a lot of friends.

And we never had a cheering rally. I have never been home. I have never done a field trip. Are we going to be able to have Senior Day?

My first year, I knew the school like the back of my hand. But when I came back for the junior year this fall, I didn’t know where anything was. I felt like it was my first time there.

I used to hug people; give high-fives. Now it’s a punch or a hand salute. You don’t want to touch people like that anymore. You don’t want to get close to people. I don’t really feel “me” because I like to socialize, to be in a conversation, to be close, to be one-on-one. Just to be in a group of people now and have fun? It’s a bit hard. You never know if there is Covid around. It’s scary.

It’s a completely crazy experience to navigate not only the opening of the school – which is always a bit hectic – but also the opening of the school in the midst of a pandemic after this school has gone. not been fully open for a year and a half.

The students have not been together and the way they deal with interpersonal conflict is not the best. There is a social media drama. It can quickly escalate. We had an established culture in the building before the pandemic. Now we need to restore this ecosystem.

It is surprising how many students have been isolated throughout the pandemic. There are more students who are anxious.

We have a number of students who really don’t want to go to the cafeteria. The large number of students really causes a lot of anxiety.

Math is the biggest academic challenge, and it was true even before the pandemic. We offer tutoring and credit recovery, which the stimulus dollars help pay for.

But what a lot of people don’t think about is wasting time in terms of college or career planning. Normally when we have in-person students we start early, in grade nine, talking about steps you can take even at age 14. Although we tried to do a lot of things while we were virtual, we weren’t as successful. Now we have juniors under the gun catching up on their college planning.

Normally, it is quite easy for a student to apply for a college recommendation letter. But how well do staff members actually know students who haven’t been in person for a year and a half?

When the pandemic started, I moved to Waterbury with my mother and younger sister. I grew up in the Bronx. But my mother wanted to have a house. It was the best place, the best neighborhood.

I tried going to school in person for a few weeks in second grade, but we had to stay home every few days because someone got a case and then the whole school closed. Plus, staying home was easier for my mom and sister. My mother worked in person as a social worker in New York.

In the morning, I made sure my sister was awake and got on the bus for kindergarten. Then I would wait for her to come home and help her with her homework. I’ll make her shower – feed her.

I didn’t want to be home. And when I realized I wouldn’t have a second grade school, it really took a toll on the mind.

I have done well in my online courses. But I slept in the afternoon and did my homework for the rest of the day. Then I would watch TV and videos all night until morning. It was a repetitive pattern. There was so much free time.

Now that I’m back in school, I’ve met a lot of new people. Everyone seems a lot friendlier and more open. I play volleyball. And I want to get involved in the community, maybe volunteer with the Red Cross.

I want to go to college and get a doctorate in psychology. I always ask myself, “What makes people think and act the way they do?” And how can I, as a person, identify with them? The pandemic made me more self-aware.

I always joke that freshmen don’t really turn into freshmen until about halfway through the year. Until Christmas they are pretty much still in eighth grade.

Now I see them in the hallways, and they look like they might be 22.

Last year some students worked in supermarkets, pharmacies, restaurants. McDonald’s and Dunkin ‘Donuts hire a lot of our kids. Students were contributing more financially than they had ever done before.

Labor time was easier when they were virtual. Now that the school leaves at 1:50 p.m., they have to take the bus home and they have to put on their work uniform. Essentially, they have to be reminded that school is their priority. It’s time management. I have a part-time job at Gap myself, so I can talk to them about it.

In April 2020, my grandmother in Brooklyn passed away from Covid. We were close, I lived with her for a while. At first it was difficult to move on.

I didn’t go to school last year. Daily life was different. I slept late and missed 80 days of geometry which was my first period. I failed this course and recovered credits over the summer. It was an online program that took two hours a day for two weeks.

Now I’m doing my best to be optimistic. The Covid is not going to last forever.

And really, the pandemic opened my mind. I received a lot of compliments on my writing and last year took journalism courses online. I started interviewing people. And I also got into photography. When you’re trapped inside, it makes you want to get out more. I started walking around my neighborhood to this wooded area. It was so peaceful, and I wanted to go away. Now everywhere I go I can imagine a picture.

My journalism teacher tells me I’m really good at it. My mother and stepfather encourage me a lot. They say I have to go to college. Now I am going back to journalism and going to work on the school newspaper.

Last year I was teaching in class and, at the same time, on video with the children at home. Only a few students were in person, so the focus was really on distance. During the first period, people were in bed. The hard part is when you tell stories in class you can see if they are engaged.

But the distance learning experience will help them in college online courses. Many jobs are also now distant. Things change.

Last year I probably had migraines three times a week from being so much on the computer screen.

I feel better now that we’re back in person.

Now I have to finish my college applications, but I feel like I haven’t had a chance to really think about it or, like, breathe with it. I’m overwhelmed.

I hope UConn or Quinnipiac. But Quinnipiac is very expensive. I’m trying to find what is the cheapest. My talented and gifted teacher makes sure that we are on top of our university forms. My mom didn’t go to college, and since she’s never been, it’s really hard for her to try to help me. I want to be a perfusionist. A perfusionist is someone who checks a heart bypass machine during surgery. The joke is that no one says that word except me. I learned about it on “Grey’s Anatomy” and did some research.

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