"Connecting...": My High School Experience in a Pandemic

What navigating the difficulties of online learning, while experiencing the traditional ups and downs of high school, looks like

A computer, a blank stare, a gray screen: my junior year of high school summed up. My school district, Cobb County in Georgia, decided to start on August 17th completely online. 

We had officially been out of school and normal life as we knew it for six months. I felt like we were living in a movie—detached from reality. When the news broke that school was going to be virtual, I wasn’t surprised. I accepted that we couldn’t go back to school, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t upset me. I had been looking forward to junior year throughout high school. Everyone had said that it would be the most stressful - but also the most fun. Even with my seemingly impossible course load, I knew I could get through it with the support of my friends and teachers. Now, all of that has changed. I hoped it wouldn’t be like the few months we were in virtual classes last semester. At my school, we were expected to complete all of our assignments on our own. I had never had a full day of school on Zoom, and I didn’t particularly want to either. I wanted to wake up and realize this was all a nightmare. I wanted to turn on the news and see that a miracle happened - see that we were no longer in this disaster. I wanted to go back to the hallways I once couldn’t wait to get out of.

I was going to miss walking to the school coffee shop and getting an iced latte before the tardy bell rang. I was going to miss talking to my friends in the hallways and then sprinting to class on the other side of the building. I was going to miss visiting my old math teacher during homeroom. I was going to miss eating slightly stale chocolate chip cookies from my cafeteria. I was going to miss the homecoming dance, the pep rallies, the after-school clubs, and my high school experience.

Before coronavirus, like most other students, I hated school. I didn’t appreciate the little things and I couldn’t wait for the bell to ring. I stared at the clock every class period, and I took the luxury of seeing my friends everyday for granted . I overlooked the small interactions, the engaging discussions, and the overall quality of my education. Now, looking back, I would do anything to return to my school in-person. The pandemic took away everything I genuinely enjoyed: I’m left zoning out to droning lectures, losing sleep over heaps of homework, and sitting alone in my room staring at a computer screen. 

Before COVID-19, I had never missed a day of school before. Now, I sleep through classes or spend all period trying to reset my Wi-Fi connection. It’s impossible to keep track of all my assignments when my teachers use different platforms and put worksheets under different folders. Before the pandemic, I barely ever missed assignments, and I always turned work in on time. This year, I’m scrambling to turn in my vocabulary quiz before 3:30, my Socratic seminar questions by 11:59, and  my Colonial literature annotations by 8 AM.  Navigating technology itself is a whole other story.

I was in the middle of my computer science test when my screen froze. My other tab, filled with the faces of my peers, disappeared and turned into a small black box that read “Connecting…”. I refreshed the page and closed any tabs that were left open. Nothing worked, the screen stayed frozen, and I was losing valuable time on my test. I quickly typed out an email on my phone to my teacher and began every trick in the book to fix my computer. 

The other day, as my math teacher explained the hardest concept of the unit, I was kicked out of the call and forced to reload my internet. I rejoined the Zoom, only to arrive after she finished.

My AP Seminar teacher froze mid-sentence, and all my peers glanced at each other in confusion, wondering if it was just them, or if we all were experiencing the same situation. 

The problem isn’t that my teachers aren’t understanding or won’t cut me slack with all of the confusion clouding this brand-new situation. It’s to what extent. I work a part-time job after school during the limited help sessions my school offers. I don’t have the flexibility to retake tests during that allocated time. Teachers and students alike are trying to accommodate to the difficulties that the situation entails, but there will inevitably be struggles we don’t foresee and can’t handle. My struggles feel so heavy and larger than the world sometimes; I feel as if my education has been compromised due to the overloaded Wi-Fi connection, the overloaded computer, and my overloaded brain. I can only imagine the difficulty other students within my own community are facing.

Some students are unable to access a computer at all or the necessary wireless connection. Other may share a computer with their siblings or their entire family. Some have large families in small houses, with screams in the background. My school has tried to make a point of requiring all cameras to be on during Zoom sessions. There are kids in positions where they simply can’t comfortably turn both their video and audio on at home. The entire situation has disregarded students in unstable situations, amplifying existing problems regarding inequity in education.

I have to convince myself that this is the decision our officials had to make. There are currently 6.61 million (and counting) cases of coronavirus in the United States. By reopening schools, officials are disregarding the severity of the situation we are in and endangering millions of lives. Obviously, I’m sad to miss out on part of my high school experience, but when faced with a life or death situation for not only me but my community, I will always choose safety. 

There are other districts where students are returning to in-person classes and almost immediately being sent home after coming to contact with COVID. I know this decision was for the well-being of me and my peers: I just wish it didn’t come at the expense of our high school experience and mental health.

In all honesty, I’m conflicted about the right way to handle this situation. We are amidst a global pandemic and must uphold our responsibility to protect ourselves and the people around us. At the same time, in a system of already existing inequities, the pandemic only serves to exacerbate the disparities. The virtual setting itself comes with a plethora of difficulties, with some students already worse off than others due to their pre-existing circumstances. We as students shouldn’t have to deal with even more problems on top of everything on our plate. The people with authority should be carefully accessing all choices possible and taking in-student struggles into consideration. I personally can’t wait for this nightmare to be over, but in the meanwhile, action must be taken to increase mental health resources and quality education for all students. 

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