Being a High School Student Amidst the Coronavirus Outbreak – 9 months in


So, 2020, eh?

Just over nine months ago, at the very beginning of my region’s lockdown, I wrote a blog post to discuss my thoughts and feelings about the pandemic and what it would mean for my education, my life, and my community. I value the insight I had at the time, even with how I read it in retrospect and laugh at my former self for naive thoughts like “this will be over in three weeks.” But what I wrote was largely speculative. The worst was yet to come, and I was just talking about what I was feeling in the moment.

Now, as we enter the last month of this wretched year, I figured I’d take the time to write a follow up post to evaluate how far we’ve come from those worried but optimistic days in March.

With that said, hello! I’m Aaron Veasna Mackenzie, a high school senior living in California, and here’s my take on being a high school student during the COVID-19 pandemic — nine months into it.

(TL;DR at the bottom)

A digital message in a blue box against grey pixels. "Error, no recent photos of self found. Continue post without image?"
Before site redesigns, there used to be a lot more pictures of me. I’ve grown averse to them.

What’s changed

A lot.

That undoubtedly goes for everyone reading this. Nine months is a long time, and absolutely everybody has undergone major and minor shifts in their personal and professional lives. Resisting the mindset that was necessary at the beginning of quarantine — that it would be over soon and that this was just a pause to our lives, not a new way of life — has made it difficult to adjust to and comprehend the fact that I, as a 17 year old teenager, have been shaped and built by much of what has happened this year. This is the end of my high school experience. This is going to define a part of who I am.

It’s weird to think about.

I’ve adapted to staying inside all the time, to doing distanced learning, to almost always wearing shorts, to having insanely long hair, and to being alone. I’ve redesigned this website three times, crafted a whole poetry series, written a couple short stories, and had the time to lose contact with my friends for months and then regain it for the past few months. I’ve dealt with mental health issues, talked with my friends about theirs, and seen relationships form and be broken. I’ve had the time to be on the Internet and grow more knowledgeable and accepting of communities I’m not a part of, have opened myself up as a creator, and have dug deep into the things that have made me who I am for better or worse.

I even made a new Pokemon Go account and got it to level 32, which is saying something for a game whose main premise is going outside and walking around. I haven’t done much of that.

There are a few main subjects I’d like to touch on, so here we go.

A screenshot from the game Pokemon Go, indicating the author's avatar and an experience bar displaying Level 32.
Video games allow you to live your wildest dreams, such as wearing a mask with glasses.

Education

Last semester, as the pandemic hit the world hard and abruptly (assuming you ignore the warning signs that preceded lockdown, of which there were many that, frankly, were ignored), many academic institutions struggled to adapt their curriculums and styles of teaching to accommodate the new social norms. My high school was no exception.

In the course of a week, I went from having six classes a day, every day, to having a single one hour class each day. It was a jarring shift that wasn’t helped by everyone’s inexperience and the awkward, at least to me, timing of 11:00 am to 12:00 pm. Teachers did their best to stoke the dying flames that were their lesson plans, and for the most part we stuck to a very distant husk of what the rest of the year was supposed to be, at least educationally. A lot of interactive activities became awkward assignments. A lot of engaging lectures became autonomous assignments. A lot of group discussions became group assignments.

Noticing a pattern?

On a virtual math assignment, a student responds “how is this a question” to a statement labeled as an open-ended question.
If I’m being completely honest, stuff like this wasn’t uncommon in Stats

I speak from the experience of not only myself, but the many other students I’ve known in my time as a, well, student, when I say that high school made a hard turn from teaching to assigning. Yes, I passed my second semester with flying colors. I finished my Spanish II coursework. I finished my assigned Literature reading and filled out several pages of analysis. I reviewed weekly lessons on Statistics and solved a lot of math problems. I read presentations about engineering and design concepts and completed activities applying them. But trust me when I earnestly say that I did not learn a thing.

Virtually nothing I was “taught” the second semester of my junior year still exists in my memory. I wasn’t actually learning; I was just doing assignments every week and turning them in for a grade. Those A’s on my report card are even more arbitrary and meaningless than they were before the pandemic.

I ended my junior year very . . bored with school. There wasn’t any last day of class where my friends and I said goodbye before summer. There was me, tiredly waiting for a project to finish rendering in Adobe Premiere at 3:00 am in the morning, a week past the last official day of school, trying to withhold the high school tradition my friends and I had made of making a goofy video for our history class final, except I hadn’t spoken to my friends in months, and I’d done the whole project alone. That wasn’t even because any of us had had some sort of falling out. We just had other things going on, and we’d always had trouble staying in contact when school was out since it’d served as an easy common ground for us to interact.

An outgoing iMessage text reads "So boys, any plans for the APUSH final?". There are no texts in response.
Yeah, they never texted back

After I submitted that final assignment of my junior year, I was eager to get my mind off of school. But as my, honestly, really short summer neared its end, I was left thinking about how high school would be during my senior year. Would it be the same? How would my schedule be? Would I be able to actually learn? And would I receive the same degree of support from counselors as I went through the rigorous process of applying to colleges?

Senior year began with a newer, fuller schedule. Each day I attend five different classes — some of which have found the capacity to actually provide lecture — from 8:30 am to 1:00 pm, save for Wednesdays, which are classified as asynchronous work days with office hours that are optional unless your grades are poor. Going from five classes a week to five classes a day was a prominent but welcome shift, and the return to some degree of rigor was helpful in getting my head back into an educational mindset.

Things still weren’t the same, and it was clear that everyone felt it too. As for teachers, those who had been at my high school before the pandemic weren’t quite able to bring the same style of instruction that they had before, and those who were just starting off in a rather hectic year had trouble getting on their feet in the first place. It was all still a new and uncertain form of learning that over a decade of traditional education had never prepared us for.

The amount of assignments didn’t really decrease, but the amount of actual lecture and classtime increased and essentially balanced it out. Unlike the previous semester, I was actually able to learn from what I was being taught and the assignments meant to cement my comprehension. It wasn’t working as well as it had before the pandemic, but at least it was an improvement.

It wasn’t long, though, before things got monotonous; about two months into the semester I started to truly clock out of my own mind, and even though I was digitally (in place of physically) present at lectures, mentally I was everywhere else. Assignments piled up and fatigue brought about the same feelings of detachment that had been present in the spring, only with the added bonus of a fuller schedule to give even more responsibilities and work. Even now as I end the fall semester and finish all my finals, I’m not actually free from work. I’d love to spend some time writing and have some content to post here, but I still have to work on private college applications.

On the subject of college, applying to them has been a particularly not fun experience. For those that aren’t aware and/or haven’t gone through the whole ordeal in quite a while, college applications essentially boil down to tracking down a whole lot of information to report, being very meticulous to report it accurately, and spending a whole lot of time and energy writing a whole lot of essays that are, more or less, supposed to capture the entire worth of your human soul in anywhere between 50-650 words, usually under 250 or 350. Although they’re not fun regardless of what the state of the state of the world is when you’re doing them, I can’t compare to non-COVID-time college applications, since I have only a small frame of reference of what they were like before. I do, however, have the insight of some of my counselors alongside my own experiences.

Typically my high school’s college counselors would be valuable resources to turn to for help, and that they most certainly still are, but the efficiency they’re warranted during the pandemic is not at all what it used to be. The lack of a physical space has a lot of ramifications, many of which I’ll address in the next section of this post, but one of the practical impacts is the difficulty of collaboration with large numbers of people in a virtual setting. Whereas before the counselors could be flexible and omnipresent, there if you needed them and open to walk-ins and brief check-ins, now they have to delegate specific times to specific people and deal with the nuances of navigating Zoom, the wretched thing, and whatever other digital means of communication and cooperation are being used. It’s all just slower, which makes completing applications slower, and when that’s confounded by an onslaught of assignments from multiple daily classes that you’re barely able to stay concentrated during, ending high school in distanced learning becomes pretty overwhelming pretty quickly.

And that’s only taking things from an educational perspective.

A meme contrasting the creator’s wish to “Delete Student” during winter break versus having to pleadingly apply to colleges.
*Uses Canvas for a meme as a high schooler.* *Uses Canvas for class as a college student.*

Socialization

Before I move on, I do want to note that this is very much my experience as a student, but I do also have the opportunity to see some of what my teachers are going through. As much as I may occasionally relate to memes made by fellow angsty teens stressed about school and targeting their teachers as the source of all their worldly strife, I do understand that for every bit of difficulty that the pandemic has introduced into my educational experience, it has introduced probably three times as much into the lives of my instructors. Compressed schedules, Frankensteinian reanimations of previous curriculums and lesson plans, and having to speak to a screen every day are assuredly terrible. If you’re a teacher reading this hoping to gain insight and understanding of your students, first of all, kudos to you, and secondly, thank you. Truthfully, the classes I learned the most from this semester were the classes where teachers brought with them a productive and open energy and worked to cultivate it among us students, which is a difficult thing to do and is truly admirable. All of this is hard for literally everybody, and even though students can sometimes feel negative towards you, they’re really just stressed and have no other direction to express it towards. Most of the world is online school now.

A low view from the keyboard of a laptop towards a screen containing a charted document, presumably an assignment.
This photo’s from what, March? Hot potatoes.

I’m sure there are new students in the class of 2021 that came to my school this year, but I’ve never met them. Without the physical space of a campus to actually move around in, there’s no chance for brief socialization. I can’t run into a teacher or peer in the hall and seamlessly strike up a conversation. I can’t casually join in when some classmates are talking and joking around. I’m not moving anywhere. I’m barely talking to anyone.

It doesn’t help that the student body at my high school is a rather unenthusiastic bunch that didn’t adapt well to being distanced. As much as the staff tries their best to promote a sense of community, I can attest — with the experience of about 4 clubs I tried and failed to start due to a lack of student engagement throughout my high school career — that it doesn’t really work. Conversations in class are very rarely among students and typically are teacher-to-student and vice versa with an overwhelming utilization of Zoom’s private messaging feature. Very few, if any at all, students turn on their cameras, including me, for a multitude of reasons that vary from person to person but likely overlap in areas of self-consciousness, low desire to participate, and/or discomfort with the whole digital interface.

My high school is by no means an example of this, though. I’m aware of many other institutions that are far more strict in this regard and have made it so that having active group discussions and cameras turned on is the norm. To my knowledge, which I’ve gathered from my time online and friends who have begun college this year, universities tend to enforce these policies much more rigorously. But whether or not you’re showing your face or thoughts to your peers is merely a symptom that different schools have managed to differing degrees.

The biggest problem I believe to be at the root of this is simply the lag that comes with communication nowadays, both in a virtual and social sense. Like I said before, the lack of a common environment makes interaction so much more difficult. Sure, at any moment I could message a classmate and strike up a conversation, and sometimes I do. But without proximity and simplicity, without the ease of feeling like it’d be natural to start talking with someone and not just awkward, we’re less likely to actually try as much as we used to. It might seem like a ridiculous and effortlessly solvable issue, and honestly, it is, but the fact is that if it feels awkward to be social, people likely aren’t going to be social. Doing everything in a virtual setting makes everything awkward, and it isn’t easy to always take the initiative to overcome that.

A Zoom meeting attendee, presumably an unidentifiable teacher, has their eyes and mouth cropped onto a potato. It’s weird.
Here, have some levity in the form of a potato teacher

The only people I’m going to keep in contact with are those who I already have enough of a social background with to feel comfortable reaching out to, because the atmosphere around us rarely feels inviting to taking risks and opening up to new people. From what I’ve seen, the same goes for a lot of other students too. Most of us are staying in the same friend groups we had before quarantine and never really interacting with anyone outside of them. That’s why I’ve never met any of the new students in my senior ranks; if you grabbed me in class and had me choose between talking with, basically, a stranger versus someone I’ve known for years, nine times out of ten I’m choosing the latter. The other one time I choose to not talk to anyone at all.

Those pre-existing friendships are what I’ve clung onto this past semester. For reasons that are likely more specific to us than the general high school clique, my friend group largely fell out of contact with each other for the first five or six months of quarantine. When we finally managed to establish communication once again, it was honestly a big relief. I’ve occasionally met up with a close friend — close both dynamic-wise and geography-wise — to run some simple errands, but largely the whole group has made the most of online platforms, particularly Discord, to chat, call, hang out, and play games. It isn’t the same as how things were before quarantine, but in a few ways it’s better, and at the very least it’s maintaining an important aspect of life that can slip away surprisingly easily nowadays. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that a lot of other social opportunities have diminished and while there are still other people, friends, and family we can talk to, having the anchor of the group chat is honestly a comfort.

For what it’s worth, I do want to speak to my own experience that falling out of and back into contact with my friends has, hopefully, better prepared us for moving away after high school. It’s a fate all too familiar and dreaded by many, the drifting apart of yearlong friendships after graduation, and it’s been a subject of occasional discussion among my friend group already. There’s no certainty to what will happen when we advance to college, but I hope the habits of communication we’re building now, in a time where we’re already forced to be separated from each other, will stick with us in the future when different circumstances of life do the exact same thing.

Quarantine, along with a lot of other significantly more important things, has taken away a lot of the excuses people had to simply hang out with each other and forced us to find new reasons and avenues to socialize. But in one way or another, life will do that to you eventually, so maybe young adults like me are just getting a taste of that lesson a bit early. Who knows? We definitely don’t.

Health & Community

I’m gonna be honest here: I am not as informed about this subject as I or, frankly, anybody should be. The extent of my current understanding goes as follows:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic exists.
  • Although as a young person I am not at as much risk to the harm of coronavirus, there are people who are immunocompromised who are much more vulnerable, and it is our responsibility as a society to work together and ensure the safety of everyone.
  • There was and has been an emphasis on flattening the curve and preventing the overexertion of our medical personnel and resources. This has not gone well.
  • I should wear a mask and avoid being around people if I can. If I am around people, staying at least two meters away is ideal (six feet, sure, but two meters is slightly longer and more is better).
  • Currently my county has entered another lockdown order until January 4th, indicating that the need for caution is even higher than usual.
  • Vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are beginning to be administered for emergency use in the US. Congress is being vaccinated. Sir Ian McKellen got vaccinated.
  • It isn’t certain that the vaccine will at all prevent you from being a carrier, so precautions will still be necessary.
  • Vaccines don’t mean we’re in the clear and won’t even get close to meaning that for a long time. How long? Unclear. Precautions will still be necessary.
  • Countless people are struggling. Financial assistance has not been nearly enough to help.
  • Too many people have lost their lives and livelihoods.
  • It’s been nine months.
  • We may well have another nine months ahead of us. Still unclear. Precautions will still be necessary.

I’m likely forgetting to mention something and may be a bit wrong, but truthfully all of what I did mention above is more than enough knowledge for me to act accordingly and carefully. I wear a mask when I go outside, don’t attend large social gatherings, stay at the very least out of arm’s reach of people in public, if not much more. I capitalize on the shy introvert habit of crossing to the other side of the street when there’s someone else on the sidewalk, because now I have a more justification for doing it. I barely have any reason to go to populated areas except for errands and food runs, and if there’s an option for contactless delivery, you absolutely bet I’m taking it.

I’m a 17 year old high school student. I’m not a doctor, politician, or even an essential worker out in the world very much; I stay in the apartment most of time and tunnel vision on the things I can handle. What else is there I can do? This is the part I play in the pandemic: being careful and trying to stop the spread. I focus on my education and the little life I’ve managed to scrap together in this tiny home I’ve been stuck in for nine months.

I think the same goes for a lot of the other high schoolers out there. Of course, not one of them is in the exact same situation as me; many have jobs, many are immunocompromised themselves, many are in dire financial straits, many have entirely different family dynamics, and many are in dangerous situations unrelated to COVID-19 itself but worsened by the lockdown. We’re as diverse a group as you could possibly imagine, and the common thread between all of us is that a big part of the place we hold in this global crisis is the same as everyone else’s. We have to work to combat the virus in any way we can. For us, that means care, caution, and focusing on what’s in our control.

A view from a gated canopy into a foggy autumn street where trees, cars, and buildings are faintly visible.
Foggy days.

Mental Health

I’m not going to try to discuss this from any professional standpoint, nor do I think delving into the specifics of my personal experiences will do me or anyone reading this much benefit. I only seek to bring it up because it is a significant and unavoidable aspect of what quarantine has done to people all around the world. Many young adults are grappling with it worse than others.

I need only return to the previous sections of this post to give you an idea of the circumstances that would understandably contribute to a decline of mental well being. School has always been a tremendous source of stress for youth since just about April 23, 1635, and many of the factors that make school stressing in the first place have been worsened due to distance learning. Assignments are being dished out a dime a dozen and instruction is struggling to keep up with what it used to be, which wasn’t enough for many students anyway. Some things, like being around large groups and other social stressors, may have gone away, but with them also goes many of the opportunities for adequate socialization and hanging out with friends. I can get exhausted and drained of mental energy if I need to talk and interact with people for long periods of time, especially if they’re not people I’m not particularly fond of. Distance learning may have taken away the need to talk to a lot of people who would exhaust me, but the other side of that coin is that it took away opportunities to talk to the people who wouldn’t (as much).

Anxiety and other mental health issues are difficult to live with, as countless people can attest to, but to some degree or another one thing that keeps them from getting worse is actually living with them. Anxiousness and intrusive thoughts are horrible to handle, but actually being in the situations you’re anxious about can help mitigate the worry. Assuming things go well and your anxiety is wrong, which it tends it be, then getting past the fear and realizing things are okay is a stressful but ultimately cathartic experience. In ordinary life, there are many opportunities to do this, and mental health issues don’t magically go away but are assuaged slightly when things turn out okay.

Put us alone in a bedroom where we can’t face our fears, only stew in them, as we try to concentrate on an AP Calculus lecture we’re too fatigued to understand, and we teenagers see our mental health plummet even more than our grades. Give us access to an endless oasis on online information about everything, which is overwhelmingly bad news nowadays, then tell us we have to stay connected for school, and you’ve added a plastic cherry atop what’s already a glowing pile of excrement.

I do want to point out that issues like anxiety and depression aren’t the only mental health issues that teens, or frankly anybody, struggle with. Not in the slightest. But they are extremely common, and regardless of the mental illness(es) an individual deals with, their mental health has likely been worsened by the pandemic introducing a surge of new stressors and taking away opportunities of positive means of handling and coping with their disease(s).

I’ve spoken with other students about this. Their issues are their own and their privacy is deserved, but what I’ve seen and heard is enough for me to know this problem is widespread.

Solutions? I don’t have them, not even for myself. This is a problem that can’t be solved without solving a lot of other problems first, and we don’t seem to be doing a good job at even that.

A screenshot of four random news article headlines. It’s subjective, sure, but jeez just reading them is stressful.
Ah, yes, the world.

Growing Up

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

If I’d pulled a Doctor Strange a year ago and looked into 14,000,605 possible futures, only to see this reality among them, I never would’ve thought that it’d actually be the one to come true. I’d also feel extremely guilty about not warning everybody, but, frankly, it’s not like anyone would’ve listened.

I’m at the end of my high school career. It’s been such a long, incredible, and impactful journey, and I’ve already grown so much even before quarantine hit. But my senior year was supposed to be the proper conclusion to that. I was supposed to approach it with the same people I’ve known for years and go through this rigorous process of applying to college together. We were supposed to have casual hang outs and all these small but beautiful experiences together, bring each other food and jokes, go on little adventures. We were supposed to learn from our classes but also from each other. We were supposed to cry and celebrate and cement the bonds we’ve built. We were supposed to feel. We were supposed to grow up together. So much of that would solidify by this year.

And we still are growing up. That didn’t stop because of quarantine. It just got so . . different.

An excerpt from a school admin message deciding on distanced learning for the full remainder of the 2020-2021 school year.
A recent message from school administration

I’m never going back to my high school. All of us were hoping that by some miracle we’d be allowed to go back normally for at least the last few weeks, but a few weeks ago administration sent out an email containing the message depicted above. It’s good to know for certain so that we don’t have to linger in this limbo of hope and dread anymore and can plan accordingly. But it also sucks.

The last time I was inside my school was March 13th, and I was seriously a different person. I was operating under the assumption that I had more than a year to go before the last time I’d ever see a normal day in that school. I was wrong. My last day as a normal high school student was over nine months ago. What should’ve been my high school experience ended over nine months ago. This might still be “high school”, but it really isn’t. Not when you consider high school to be more than just four years of gen-ed courses and an eventual diploma.

High school is more than that. Sucky as it may be, stressful as it may be, and even as countless people don’t share the same experience and opinion as me, high school is a time and a place where we become adults. The people we meet, the experiences we have, the obstacles we face, the things we accomplish, and the things we fail at all build us up and define who we are. Now that’s changed, and it’s like we’ve been robbed of the chance to be who we were on track to become. We’re finding our identities in different ways, and it hasn’t been easy.

The class of 2021 is feeling this hard. The class of 2020 felt it before us. Hopefully the class of 2022 won’t have to.

A silhouette of a young man in a window. The wall is faded purple. Chairs and a building are vaguely seen in the reflection.
My reflection in a school window.

Too Long; Didn’t Read

The past nine months have been hard. School is mostly assignments. It’s hard to socialize. We teens don’t know everything, but we know to wear masks, physical distance, and not be stupid. Our mental health is tanking. We’ve lost a crucial part of growing up.

(back to the top)

Too Long; Didn’t Read, but I do want a bit more detail

My educational experience has largely become a stressful onslaught of endless assignments in places where curriculum is struggling to work in spite of distance learning. Opportunities for socialization have diminished extremely, and the awkwardness that comes from operating in a largely digital settings means that a lot of the nuance of social interaction is hindered. It’s a lot of small differences that make things like being active and vocal during class all the more difficult. Keeping in contact with friends online is the best I and most other students can do.

Many of us high schoolers aren’t keeping track of all of what’s going on with the pandemic and the country. We know enough to act responsibly (excluding some statistical outliers in the chart of general intelligence), to wear masks, to physically distance ourselves, and to be careful about the things we do. We don’t have a lot of power to change our situation, but most of us are doing our part.

Quarantine has made mental health issues worse for teens as school becomes more stressful, chances to positively socialize are more scarce, and we’re constantly aware of all the terrible things happening in our communities, country, and the world. We can’t live our lives and fight our fear; we’re forced to stay inside and be stuck in our heads.

The high school experience is an important part of growing up for so many teens, and quarantine has effectively taken away so much of that. Sure, we have some husk of what education used to be, but we’ve been deprived of so much of what makes these years a vibrant and significant factor in shaping who we become. It’s rough.

A young student walks far from the camera through an empty high school common space.
Taken in early March 2020 for a class project. An empty high school.

Final Thoughts

I sincerely recommend https://screamintothevoid.com/.

This post, for a multitude of reasons, is likely a bit saddening. That certainly wasn’t the intention, but it’s hard to achieve any other result when discussing anything remotely relevant to the events of 2020. I just hope that there is usefulness to the insight I was able to provide from the experiences of myself and the larger group I can speak, to some degree, in part for.

It’s winter break currently, so I hope if you’re celebrating holidays around this time, your festivities are joyous, relaxing, and merry. Whether you’re also a high school or college student, or an adult with work, or someone in any other situation, I thank you for taking the time to read this little essay of sorts. Might your slice of what’s left of 2020 be calm, peaceful, and happy. If you’re intent on sticking around, I’ll see you whenever I get around to writing another post.

Oh, frick, right, I need to work on college applications, fr–

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