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COVID-19 School Hiatus Creates Uncertainty, Unknowns for College-Bound Seniors

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Madi Marks admits it’s a scary time to be a high school senior.

She was supposed to tour colleges in New York and Miami. With everything shut down because of the pandemic, the 17-year-old expects to choose a college, perhaps the most important decision so far in her life, by looking at photos and information online.

"I've been trying to stay positive, doing my homework outside, going on hikes, doing artwork and everything. But yeah, that's how the COVID-19 has been affecting me," said the senior from West Ranch High School in Stevenson Ranch. 

Across the nation, high school seniors – a generation born after 9/11 and entering adulthood during the pandemic – have placed their education and futures on hold. Many schools have shut down through summer. Learning, along with the thrill and stress of selecting a college, has become "remote."

Many rituals besides university visits have been canceled, including proms, grad nights, senior rallies and graduation ceremonies. Will they even have a yearbook to show their children 20 years from now?

For many, especially those aiming to become the first in their families to go to college, finances have become precarious with businesses closed, parents losing jobs and the economy possibly headed toward a depression.

"Everyone's anxiety/worry level is high," said professor Einat Metzl, who teaches marriage and family therapy courses at Loyola Marymount University in Westchester. The stress extends far beyond personal concerns about exams, grades and college admissions, she said.

"Some teens are very dialed into politics, considering global and local impacts, witnessing leaders respond, exploring the meaning of this time within their knowledge of historical times – such as the Great Depression, previous elections, the rise and fall of civilizations – wondering whether this will be the defining event of their lives and considering their place and role," Metzl said.

Missing Out on Rituals

Canyon High School senior Isabelle Mesropian said she already knows she’ll be majoring in journalism at Cal State Northridge this fall. But even with that certainty, she said it's frustrating to miss out on the end of the school year and everything that goes with it – the prom, the final "easy stretch," hanging out with friends.

"It feels like it all got stolen away from us,” the Santa Clarita teen said. “Our senior year ended way too early.”

Still, the teenagers said, they understand the perspective: Coronavirus victims are dying, people are losing their jobs, healthcare professionals are trying to save lives while endangering their own. 

"I don't want to seem selfish," Madi said. "I'm trying to look at the positive…. My family is safe, and all of my friends are safe."

Rebecca Hurst, a senior at Notre Dame Academy in Los Angeles, misses bonding with her classmates but has more than her high school experiences to think about. Her parents – a nurse and a doctor – leave robes in the garage so when they come home from work they can remove their clothes and immediately come inside to shower.

Anthony Lane, an 18-year-old senior at Millikan High School in Long Beach, said he knows he's headed to college but doesn’t know where and when. A member of the Natural Born Leaders club and president of the Black Student Union, Anthony has been accepted at several colleges and is leaning toward studying business at Howard University in Washington D.C. But he can't visit that campus and is awaiting delayed word about financial aid. He’s not even sure if some colleges will reopen in the fall.

"There's a certain level of anxiety and just a feeling you are missing out on something that you hear about all your life … 'This is going to be the best time of your life.'” He said it’s “very disappointing” to be missing out on senior prom and much of the exploration and discovery involved in going off to college.

Financial Instability

Lynda McGee, college counselor at the Downtown Magnets High School in Los Angeles, said she was concerned about the sudden halt to classes derailing education in financially strapped families.

“I have kids who have 10 people in their house,” she said. To study from home, one created a workstation inside a closet for privacy.

Some of these students have been accepted by prestigious universities but they’ll miss a lively special event at school in May to announce where they will be attending college. A 5K run to raise money to help students also won’t happen. Coming up with deposits for enrollment and housing will be hard in a damaged economy. 

“Now it may be a matter of ‘Will I have the money,’” McGee said. “A lot of them will say, ‘I guess I’m going to community college.’”

McGee said she will do all she can to keep them headed to universities but her access to the students is limited with schools closed. “I can’t summon them out of class,” she said. McGee said she is worried that some will miss a chance to earn college credits if they can’t write essays for the online Advanced Placement exams on smartphones or tablets they use for internet access at home.

Staying Motivated

Loyola Marymount’s Metzl said even some students who find technology easy to use for completing schoolwork and keeping in touch with friends are finding it difficult to stay motivated and to keep a schedule.

Nate Davis, a senior at University High School in Los Angeles, said he was not worried about his senior year slipping away. He misses athletics, but he’s been using the time at home to “do a lot of the things that I’ve kind of always wanted to do.” He’s learning piano and getting into art.

“I think I'm handling it pretty well,” Nate said. “And by just trying to express myself in all the ways that I couldn't before.”

Metzl, who specializes in art therapy, said activities like Nate described can help teenagers and others get through the crisis. Baking, knitting, learning to play guitar, and using new media helps with the ability to experience joy and reduce stress and anxiety.

“Any creative engagement at this challenging and intense time would serve us best if it is valid, useful, and does not add more stress and tasks at a time we may feel overwhelmed,” Metzl said.

The teens are also taking the time to watch the news. Madi, Isabelle and others said they are watching how the president and politicians are handling the pandemic and will be ready to vote in their first presidential election this November.

Isabelle said she hopes the COVID-19 experience motivates her generation to become more involved.

“I think a lot of people my age are really angry at the world they’ve been handed, but  it’s not a time to be angry because there is just so much stuff going on where you just have to start working to make a difference,” she said. “This is going to be our world and we need to be mature about it.”

Isabelle, who is considering a teaching career, said the COVID-19 experience will ultimately prove to be a positive experience as teens “learn new abilities.”

“We are pretty moody right now. We are pretty upset. Just be patient. This is something we are not used to,” she said. “Let us be a bit emotional.”

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