high school students talk about what it’s like to make a comeback
Along with dealing with anxiety and economic uncertainty, students missed homecomings, field trips and classes. Now, they have to leap into the future with the help of the school.
Waterbury, Conn. — This fall, the hallways of John F. Kennedy High School have a real whiff of newness and oldness: Black Lives Matter face masks and the exhortation to pull them up — “Up your nose, please!” — but ribbing and laughing, bells ringing, hall passes being checked and loudspeakers reminiscing about dress codes (collar black or navy shirts and khaki or black bottoms).
Kennedy was open to in-person learning for most of the previous school year. But families in this working-class, majority-Hispanic and Black school district in Waterbury, Conn., chose to outnumber them, with two-thirds of high school students ending up online entirely last year.
This year, only students with serious health concerns can qualify for distance learning, and so far, no Kennedy family has been approved.
That is, most juniors and seniors have returned to the building for the first time in 18 months. They tend to be taller and more mature – sometimes not physically recognizable, one counselor said – but often grappling with what the coronavirus pandemic has done: anxiety, economic uncertainty and academic struggles.
Due to the closure of a nearby Catholic school and an influx of families from New York City looking for affordable housing, the school is packed with more than 1,300 students compared to before the pandemic.
According to principal Robert Johnson, most students are making up missing credits from failed courses. Some are afraid to enter the crowded cafeteria, so they are allowed to eat and socialize in quiet classrooms. There have been some fights, and it is clear that some teens are struggling to regulate their behavior after so much time at home, often separated from peers.
Before the pandemic, Kennedy was on a path of improvement: the graduation rate rose from 73 percent in 2011 to 84 percent in 2019. Now, that progress is in jeopardy, with many upper-class people lagging behind in planning for college or career. Some people find that after 18 months of learning through computer screens, they don’t know teachers well enough to ask for recommendation letters. Many hope to be the first in their family to graduate from four years of college.
“It’s a completely wild experience,” said Mr Johnson as he stood in a hallway square as he was driving students to classes – many had forgotten how to navigate the building. “I’m still a little nervous. Plus, it’s exhilarating.”
Here are the voices of Kennedy High School. Interviews have been edited.
Markella Karameta, 16, senior
Last year was the worst year of my life. It really caused, like, a dark moment.
Seeing my friends was the best part of my day. Going to school, hanging, doing anything.
It was so exhausting being on social media; Stared at the phone screen all day. There was a lot of drama in the beginning. Quarantine lost a lot of your friends.
And we’ve never had an encouraging rally. I never went home. I never went on field trips. Will we be able to celebrate Seniors Day?
Lennox Serrano, 16, Jr.
My freshman year, I knew school like the back of my hand. But when I came back for junior year this fall, I had no idea where anything was. I felt like I was going there for the first time.
I used to hug people; Give a high-five. Now it’s a fist bump or waving hello. You don’t want to touch such people anymore. You don’t want to go near people. It doesn’t really feel like “me”, because I like to socialize, be in conversation, be close, face to face. Just to be in a group of people and have fun? It’s kind of difficult. You never know if there is covid around or not. it’s scary.
Robert Johnson, Principal
It’s an absolutely wild experience navigating not only school openings—which are always kind of busy—but opening a school in the middle of a pandemic after that school hasn’t been fully open for a year and a half.
The students haven’t stayed together, and how they’re handling interpersonal conflict isn’t the best. There is some social media drama. It can grow rapidly. We had an established culture in the building before the pandemic. Now we need to reestablish that ecosystem.
It is surprising how many students were isolated during the pandemic. There are other students who are getting worried.
We have many students who really don’t want to go to the cafeteria. The huge number of students is indeed causing a lot of concern.
Mathematics is the biggest academic challenge, and this was true even before the pandemic. We are providing tuition and credit recovery, for which stimulus dollars are helping pay.
But not many people think of it as a waste of time in terms of college or career planning. Usually when we have students in person, we start it early in ninth grade, talking about what steps you can take even at age 14. While we tried to do a lot of that stuff while going virtual, we weren’t as successful. Now we have juniors under the gun who are catching up with their college plans.
It is generally easier for a student to ask for a college recommendation letter. But how well do the staff members really know the students who haven’t personally for the past year and a half?
At the start of the pandemic, I moved to Waterbury with my mother and younger sister. I grew up in the Bronx. But my mom wanted to get one home. It was the best place, the best neighborhood.
I tried to go to school individually for a few weeks, but we had to stay at home every few days because one person would catch a case and then the whole school would close. Plus, it was easier for my mom and sister to stay at home. My mother was personally working as a social worker in New York City.
In the morning, I used to make sure my sister was awake and got on the bus to kindergarten. Then I would wait for him to come home and help him with his homework. I make sure he bathes – give him food to eat.
I didn’t want to stay at home. And when I realized I wouldn’t have another year of school, it really took a toll on my mind.
I did well in my online classes. But I would sleep in the afternoon and then do schoolwork for the rest of the day. Then I would watch TV and videos all night long in the morning. It was a repetitive pattern. There was only 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 am playing volleyball. And I want to join the community, maybe volunteer with the Red Cross.
I want to go to college and do my doctorate in psychology. I always find myself asking this question, “How do people think and act? And how can I, as a person, relate to them?” The pandemic made me more self-conscious.
Ashley Mutinho, Counselor
I always joke that newcomers don’t really become new until about halfway through the year. Through Christmas, they are still eighth graders.
Now I see them there in the hallway, and they look like they might be 22.
Last year, some students were working in supermarkets, pharmacies, restaurants. McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts rent to a lot of our kids. Students were contributing more financially than ever before.
Working time was easier when it was virtual. Now he leaves for school at 1:50, all he has to do is take him home and change into his work uniform. You essentially have to remind them that school is their priority. This is time management. I have a part time job working at the Gap, so I can talk to them about it.
Jacob Francis, 16, Jr.
In April 2020, my grandmother died of COVID in Brooklyn. We were close – I stayed with him for a while. It was difficult to move forward.
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 that class and took the loan collection over the summer. It was an online program that took two hours a day for two weeks.
Now, I try my best to be optimistic. Covid is not going to last forever.
And indeed, the pandemic opened my mind. I’ve been highly praised for my writing, and last year, I took a journalism class online. I started interviewing people. And I also got into photography. When you’re stuck inside, you want to go out more. I started walking along the woods in this area through my neighborhood. It was very peaceful, and I had this urge to go away. Now, wherever I go, I can take a picture.
My journalism teachers tell me that I am very good at it. My mother and stepfather encourage me a lot. They say I want to go to college. Now I am doing journalism again and will work on school paper.
Donald Lafayette, chemistry teacher
Last year, I was teaching in class as well, on video with the kids at home. Only a small number of students were there in person, so the focus was really on the remote. During the first period, people will be in bed. The hardest part was, when you tell the stories in class, you can see if they are engaged.
But distance learning experience will help them with online courses in college. Many jobs are now far-fetched. Things are changing.
Jessinya Severino, 17, Sr.
Last year I would get migraines maybe three times per week from being at the computer screen so much.
I feel good now that we are back in person.
Now I have to finish my college applications, but I feel like I didn’t really get a chance to think about it or breathe with it. I am amazed
I’m hoping for Yukon or Quinnipiac. But Quinnipiac is very expensive. I’m trying to find whatever is cheaper. My talented and talented teachers make sure that we are on top of our college forms. My mom didn’t go to college, and since she never went through it, it’s really hard for me to try and help me. I want to be a perfusionist. A perfusionist is someone who controls a cardiac bypass machine during surgery. The joke is that no one says that word except me. I learned about it on “Grey’s Anatomy” and researched it.
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