May 28, 2023 - News

Chicago's "COVID class" graduates high school

George Washington High School seniors Camila Sanchez and Gianna Rivera. Photo courtesy of Communities In Schools

This weekend, high school seniors high school seniors are gathering for in-person graduation ceremonies, something that seemed uncertain just three years ago.

Why it matters: This year's graduating students are being called the "COVID class," because the pandemic struck in their freshman year, upending any hope of a normal high school experience.

What happened: Students endured long days in front of computer screens in makeshift at-home classrooms. That yearslong experience led to disruptions, learning loss, anxiety and other mental health challenges.

Context: When the students returned to in-person classes almost two years later, they were forced to wear masks and to continue to socially distance.

  • Certain traditional events, like pep rallies and dances, never returned.

What they're saying: "It felt kind of weird having cameras off and not seeing anyone all day," graduating senior Gianna Rivera tells Axios. She attends George Washington High School on the Southeast Side.

  • "It was really hard for me, because I had a lot of grief after losing a family member. I didn't know anyone, so socially I felt alone most of the time."
  • "It felt like being homeschooled," fellow Washington senior Camila Sanchez tells Axios. "But it also gave me an excuse to be lazy, because teachers weren't really on you about getting into the class. If you were in the building, you'd have to be on time."

State of play: When students eventually returned to the classroom, they faced challenges that other generations never had to deal with.

  • "I had students coming to me just completely overwhelmed because there was so much that they couldn't control, where they used to have control over when they were just in their bedrooms at home," Maria Watson, a student support manager at Communities In Schools of Chicago (CIS), tells Axios.
  • "It really sucked at home, because we all had our cameras off except for the teachers," Rivera says. "[So] when we came back to school, the teachers didn't know who we were. We had conversations with them before, but they don't even know who you are anymore."

The intrigue: Watson also points out that the 2023 class started back in person with the extra stress of standardized testing and preparing for college.

  • "It was a lot of pressure. They were questioning whether they even knew enough to take those exams."

Yes, but: The students say it wasn't all bad.

  • "I feel like I gained a lot more creativity. I do a lot of arts and crafts now, and I started skating," Rivera says. "And we didn't really have those high school pressures … like to impress this person, or to act this way. We're just at home chilling."
  • "I feel like you learn a lot about yourself just being stuck in your room," Sanchez says.

The bottom line: With COVID-19 lockdowns behind them, students like Rivera are optimistic.

  • "I feel more excited than anything to start a new chapter. I have my own business doing nails. And I want to learn more about cosmetology."

What's next: Both students graduated Saturday. They'll study nursing at Malcolm X College in the fall.

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