A little more than a year ago, high school students across Iowa said farewells to each other. Expecting to be together again a week later, they kept the goodbyes brief. 

That March 2020 break was just the beginning of a disruptive, chaotic stretch spanning two school years as students dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic that closed their schools for much of the time and relegated them to online classes.

Vivien Ho, Iowa City West High senior (Courtesy of Vivien Ho) Credit: Photo courtesy of Vivien Ho

“You go to school for three years, four years, and it’s all building up to this really fun year,” Vivien Ho, 18 and a senior at Iowa City West High School, said. “You have all these fun activities like graduation and prom and you just don’t get to do them, so it’s definitely sad.” 

Ho took the option of remaining online for her last term before graduating in May. “Even if I did go in person, it wouldn’t have been like a normal third trimester,” she said.

Students in the Class of `21 have taken the pandemic’s brunt. For many, their last year of high school was devoid of traditions and rites of passage. But students interviewed for a new IowaWatch high school journalism project showed plenty of pain in other grades, as well, this past year.

They have lacked consistent one-on-one interactions with teachers and other students, lost daily routines that education experts say aids their learning and missed out on regular activities such as club gatherings and regular sports seasons. They also have dealt with internet issues while taking classes at home on computers and iPads, altered their college application plans, fallen behind on classwork and endured stress and mental health problems.

About This Story

The IowaWatch High School Journalism report is an annual project combining reporting from top high school journalists in Iowa and IowaWatch journalists. It was funded, in part, with a grant from the Community Foundation of Johnson County. The following participated this year from Iowa City West High School’s West Side Story: Alyssa Skala, Hanah Kitamoto, Alexandra Carlon, Maddy Smith, Maya Chu, Krisha Kapoor, Soomin Koh, Kailey Gee, Misha Canin and Heidi Du. Also contributing were Jesse Hausknecht-Brown and Greta Stanier from stories they previously wrote for Iowa City High School’s The Little Hawk, used in this report with permission. Advisers for the newspapers are Sara Whittaker at West and Jonathan Rogers at City.

West Side Story staff meet with IowaWatch’s Suzanne Behnke and Lyle Muller in January 2021 via Zoom.

“This was the year of infinite grace for my students,” Nicole Scott, a science teacher at Iowa City’s City High School, said. “This was certainly not the year to be a hard butt and have crazy punitive policies. They’re not motivating, and they don’t work.”

Iowa City school district leaders were among the state’s most vocal this past year when seeking waivers for in-person classes. The state Department of Education denied on Jan. 7 the district’s last request for another in a string of waivers to allow distance learning only for two weeks.

The district was in the news again when more than 975 students — almost 7% of enrollment — were in quarantine and 125 students were carrying the novel coronavirus on April 13. The number of students in quarantine had dropped 10 days later to 158 on Friday, April 23, when 114 students had the virus, the district reported in its daily updates.

Dealing with online learning has been the most visible COVID-19 disruption to education. Concerns about its negative effect on learning led to Gov. Kim Reynolds signing legislation produced in the General Assembly’s first few weeks to force in-person classroom options by Feb. 15. 

One-on-one connections are difficult to make when learning online, students interviewed said. Getting help no longer was a matter of a quick hand raise. Rather, students and teachers engaged in a dragged out process of back-and-forth emails.

And then, there’s the lack of extracurricular activities that can make learning fun.

Noah Miller

“It absolutely sucks,” Noah Miller, 17, a senior at Iowa City West High School said about missing out on senior year traditions this past year. “Also, senioritis has been amplified so much by online school and the lack of motivation to get things done.”

“I bet we were all disappointed because we knew we were going to have COVID during our senior year,” said Jacob Gehlbach, an Iowa City West High senior who switched to fully in-person learning for his last trimester.

“But at this point, I think quarantine has gone on for so long that people are desensitized to the point where they don’t really care anymore,” Gelhbach, 18, said. “COVID’s just become a way of life.”

A nationwide survey released April 6 showed that one of every four of the nation’s soon-to-graduate high school seniors has delayed college plans because of financial concerns at home related to COVID-19.

Jacob Gehlbach

The survey, by Junior Achievement and Citizens Financial Group, Inc., also showed that Black and Latino high school students are being affected disproportionately, with 60% of Black and 59% of Latino students in the survey saying COVID-19 has affected how they will pay for college. 

That compares with 45% of white students in the survey, taken Feb. 26 through March 8 with 2,000 students ages 14 to 19 and including 500 who graduated from high school in 2020. The survey’s margin of error was plus or minus 2.2 percentage points.

Researchers at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based, nonprofit think tank, wrote in September that distance learning had widened the opportunity gap between those with good access to the internet and those with poorer access. The organization — whose supporters include teachers and other labor unions, industry- and education-based foundations — called for additional funding for education to deal with the sudden shift to online learning during the pandemic.

CHANGED, LOST OPPORTUNITIES

Extracurricular opportunities for personal growth were altered. In Iowa City, City High School’s Interact Club for volunteering and community service that addresses local needs altered its activities. Jill Humston, the club’s adviser, said many places stopped offering volunteer opportunities because of the pandemic. 

“As much as I love doing interaction stuff and being more active, it’s kind of hard to do those things while trying to keep everyone safe,” City High senior Melanie Tran-Duong, 18, said.

Luca Chackalackal

Sports are back this spring after being canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic. “I definitely lost a lot of motivation for a couple months after that. It was really disappointing,” Iowa City West High junior tennis player Luca Chackalackal, 16, said.  

The West girls basketball team reached the state tournament’s semifinals this year but had been sidelined twice during the season for 14-day quarantines. To minimize these COVID scares the team constantly wore masks during practices and games as well as sanitizing often. 

“Once we were used to them I was fine with wearing the masks and constantly sanitizing,” Anna Prouty, 16, a sophomore on the team, said.

“Quarantines pushed me harder because I had extra time to work on my game. Especially before our season, being away from club and school practice made me want to play even more,” she said. 

Iowa City West High’s Anna Prouty, wearing a mask, competes with Johnston High School players for a loose ball during this year’s Iowa girls’ state basketball tournament. West High players wore masks during much of the season because of COVID-19’s threat. Johnston won this March 4, 2021, state tournament semifinal game 52-47. Waukee beat Johnston the next day in the championship game, 71-43. (Owen Aanestad/West Side Story) Credit: Owen Aanestad/West Side Story

Two-time state champion wrestler Hunter Garvin said the inconsistency of this year’s delayed and limited season was an obstacle.

“The biggest challenge was just trying to practice and get workouts in,” Garvin, an Iowa City West junior, said. Garvin, 17, switched to online learning midway through the school year to limit his exposure to COVID-19. 

“If I were to have gotten deemed ‘exposed’ when I was within two weeks of districts, I wouldn’t have been able to go and would never have gone to state,” he said.

MISSED EXPERIENCE

Kamakshee Kuchhal

Some freshmen hadn’t stepped a foot inside their new high school as spring started. Kamakshee Kuchhal, online at Iowa City West High for her entire freshman year, said she feels disconnected from the school, other freshmen and peers.

“Going into high school for the first year, that’s always a new experience and something a lot of people remember: making new friends, learning new things and making new memories. Those are all things that I missed out on,” Kuchhal, 14, said.

Zaira Ahmad

“It doesn’t even feel like I’m a high schooler because I’ve never actually walked down the halls of West High, so I don’t even know what my own school looks like really.”

Zaira Ahmad, 15, said she felt the effects quickly when the pandemic struck last year.

“I didn’t necessarily have a best friend or anything so when corona happened,” Ahmad, a freshman at West High School, said. “So, it was really lonely, and I didn’t see anybody obviously.” 

The school year was moving into its last months, yet Caroline Barker said she didn’t think her teachers knew her. “And, this is partly on me because I don’t turn my camera on often, but it’s a cause of stress and anxiety for me,” Barker, 17 and a junior at Iowa City West High School, said. 

“As people, and especially as teenagers, we’re not supposed to just sit in our houses and see the same people all day every day for a year,” Barker said. “It’s also been hard seeing my peers break COVID rules and be able to have more normal experiences than I’ve been able to have because I’ve been so safe and isolated.” 

The experience hasn’t been all bad. Her schedule at least is flexible, Barker said.

RESPONSE AND SOLUTIONS

Nicole Scott, the Iowa City High science teacher, said a big challenge as a fully-online teacher is learning how best to connect with students whom you’ve never met face-to-face. “I don’t teach — and I don’t think many people do — because I just love physics,” she said. “It’s the relationships.”

Scott and other science teachers at her school sent Google Forms to check on students’ wellbeing this school year. Question topics ranged from lacking access to important resources to if they’d like to receive a “virtual hug” to brighten their day. 

“I think the first time you ask those questions, it takes a lot of courage, because you don’t know what you’re going to get,” she said. “But then, after you’ve done it a couple of times, the feedback becomes really invaluable.”

Dealing with COVID-19 has increased reliance on already popular social media, high school students interviewed for an IowaWatch high school journalism project said. That connection can be important, giving people a form of escape that allows them to laugh, smile or be surprised, Kembrew McLeod, University of Iowa professor and chair of communication students, said.

Popular social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and Snapchat were part of many teenagers’ daily routines before COVID-19. “Rather than it being a complete, abrupt break or a complete new theme, I think it’s more of an addition from the world that we lived in before,” McLeod said.

Garvin said he learned from his truncated high school wrestling season to “just to keep going.”

“Life’s going to throw things at you and will hit you with different roadblocks along the way, whether it’s COVID taking away your whole summer of wrestling along with the first part of your season away or just a match that didn’t go your way,” Garvin said.

“It sucks in the moment but you can’t let it bring you down in any way.”

IowaWatch’s Lyle Muller and The Little Hawk’s Jesse Hausknecht-Brown and Greta Stanier contributed reporting and writing for this story.

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