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Students during pandemic want history to know they are a strong, resilient generation

Central Wisconsin students share their experiences going to school in a pandemic and how it has...
Central Wisconsin students share their experiences going to school in a pandemic and how it has impacted all parts of their lives.(WSAW Emily Davies)
Published: Dec. 22, 2020 at 8:03 PM CST
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(WSAW) - With a full semester in a pandemic complete, students reflect on this unusual school year so far, saying they are strong as they face health and safety concerns, and numerous changes with what is supposed to be their constant: school.

The project

NewsChannel 7 took on a special project, gathering students from all over central Wisconsin from various grades to hear what their thoughts and experiences were and are as school begins and continues over the next year. Aug. 31, 2020 was the first day of coverage looking at what students’ experiences were over the previous five months, what they are thinking about ahead of the start of school, and what they are doing to get through all of the changes. The second round aired Sept. 24, 2020, following the same group of students (plus one who could not make the first interview). The third aired Oct. 22, 2020, about two to three months into the school year depending on the school. The fourth aired the last week of the semester before the holiday break.

Students started the school year at a variety of times, as early as Sept. 1 and as late as Sept. 14, and from a variety of approaches, with some fully in-person, some fully online, and others in some mix of that. Those models changed for several districts just before or after the Thanksgiving holiday, yet another change for students.

The students who participated are:

  • Charleze Valliere, a senior at Merrill High School
  • Lexie Durkee, a senior at Stevens Point Area High School
  • Oliver Nazari-Witt, a junior at D.C. Everest Senior High School
  • Estella Christensen, a junior at Wausau West High School
  • Julia Engebretson, a sophomore at Wausau West High School
  • Cadence Ryman, a freshman at Merrill High School
  • Connor Skarsten, an 8th-grade student at P.J. Jacobs Junior High
  • Kayla Skarsten, a 6th-grade student at Washington Elementary School in Stevens Point

Failing grades

Several schools are reporting that there are more students with failing grades than ever before. While students in the panel say, for the most part, their grades are at their typical levels and they are not failing, they know plenty of people who are.

“I know at least three people that have almost all F’s,” Kayla Skarsten said.

Engebretson said an advisor with her school made it clear their school was seeing declines. “Someone asked him, like how bad is it? And it’s like, way worse than it normally is. Kids are really, really having a hard time.”

“In Merrill, 41% of freshmen had an F for first quarter,” Ryman stated. “Our principal said that that’s the highest in that school’s history.”

“We did get a new schedule at the high school just to try to help some of the students who are failing,” added Valliere.

“I think what students are struggling most with right now is just finding the motivation to do work,” Christiensen noted. “If you’re not a self-motivated student and don’t just want to do well for yourself without having someone telling you that, you’re not going to do as well as the kids who are self-motivated.”

That is one factor, of course, other factors like added family obligations and adverse childhood experiences like hunger, abuse, and lack of support from adults can also impact students’ abilities to be able to properly learn.

Students having to quarantine during the school year have also impacted some students. Nazari-Witt has had to quarantine twice and he said he has to take numerous tests for his classes the day he comes back, which is challenging. He said his grades seem to dip a little right after coming off of quarantine, but he is able to get them back up.

He also volunteers at a retirement home and said his quarantines sometimes cause his mind to be distracted from school work.

“I sort of had my mind elsewhere like I was worried about contracting the virus things like that and I was worried about the people who I had been in contact with,” he explained. “There was, sort of, more on my plate as well as schoolwork.”

Durkee also mentioned her grades are lower than she would like, noting switching from a hybrid model to fully virtual is a challenge and she does not feel she learns as well.

“I know quite a few people who have a lot of failing grades,” Connor Skarsten said. “For them, all of this e-learning can almost be more stressful. It can be harder because we’re in a different work environment. It’s harder to focus.”

These students say they are motivated, however. They are all looking to go to college and know grades and how they conduct themselves in school matters. They said they are not going to let a pandemic hinder that.

“While colleges may look at the last year last semester and this year’s full-year as like, there was COVID, there was so much that might have been different, I don’t think that like in my mind I don’t want to use that as an excuse for poor grades,” Engebretsen stated.

A generation to remember

As this generation of students experiences this pandemic unlike any other, the world will be looking to see how it impacted them now and for years to come. Grateful is one characteristic students noted as something they plan to hold onto when the COVID-19 realities fade.

“I’ve realized what a big impact school has had on my life,” Engebretsen said, adding she does not learn as well virtually as she does in person.

Valliere said she really misses being able to see friends, learning not to take that for granted.

“Just being thankful for the life we had before and really realizing how good we all had it,” added Christiensen.

“I’ve noticed how appreciative I am of the little things,” Durkee said. “I haven’t seen people’s smiles with the masks on, and that’s been surprisingly really hard for me. Like, that’s one of my favorite things about people, and that’s what I love to do, and it’s really hard when you don’t get to see other people doing it.”

“It’s just crazy realizing how much of a privilege it is to like to be able to do these things and be able to go places, like just like, without even thinking about it,” Ryman stated, specifically mentioning not having to wear a mask everywhere.

This generation is also noted for its challenges with mental health even before the pandemic, but these students say their classmates are resilient.

“It’s so easy to just kind of be down and upset about everything that’s going on,” Durkee said. “But have to understand that everyone is going through it and they have their own personal stuff on top of it so just trying to stay as positive as possible is something I’m hoping to bring into the future when things are back to normal.”

Nazari-Witt said being able to watch people continue to thrive despite the challenges of the pandemic has been encouraging. “I think that’s a estimate to the grit of some people,” he opined.

What they want other generations to know and understand about their generation, they said their strength, resiliency, and that being technologically savvy is not a bad thing.

“Our generation is typically made fun of by older generations for how much we’re on technology on things like our phones, but I think it came out well for us because we’re already used to texting our friends, we’re already used to, like, FaceTiming, stuff like that,” Nazari-Witt said adding that he has had to set up and start virtual meetings for his parents during this time. “It’s nice to turn the tables once in a while.”

“We are a generation that sometimes gets, we just get a lot of different viewpoints from a lot of other generations and that we’re so strong for this,” Durkee urged. “Because we are a generation that struggles with a lot of depression, not everybody but there is a lot of depression and anxiety that goes through this generation just with how we’re living and that everyone that’s going through this is so strong.”

Several other students said they hope researchers take a close look at mental health and how it looked before, during, and after the pandemic on their generation. Engebretsen said they are also a generation that wants to be informed and is loud about what they believe in and she hopes that is not only remembered but explored further as their generation is analyzed.

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