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Students reflect on pandemic school experience as school year comes to a close

Updated: May. 27, 2021 at 10:19 PM CDT
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(WSAW) - After spending 15 months and more than a full school year in the COVID-19 pandemic, students from central Wisconsin are reflecting and looking forward to create a better future.

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 just before the winter holiday break. The fifth aired on March 25, 2021, about a year after the pandemic caused schools to close their doors. The sixth and final piece aired as the school year was coming to a close.

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.

The students who participated are:

  • Charleze Valliere, a senior at Merrill High School (she was unavailable for the final piece)
  • 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

Looking back

After a year of constant change, concerns about health, and lots of online learning, students were happy to see the school year come to a close. Most had comparable feelings to what they would have at the end of a typical school year. However, 2021 seniors have some extra emotions layered on, perhaps more than the bittersweet feelings many seniors have in a typical school year.

“It’s crazy to me that high school is almost over,” Durkee said. “It really goes by so fast and now that things are starting to kind of lookup, I think that’s what’s making it so emotional is it’s not a typical year and we’re finally starting to go back to what would be normal and it’s done.”

She said they were able to have a senior gala, do a grad walk through their former elementary schools, and have their typical graduation with limited capacity.

From an educational standpoint, Durkee and the other students on the panel gave a lot of credit to their teachers, saying they feel prepared to go onto the next step. Durkee said the lack of typical activities actually allowed her to have more time to write and submit college applications, scholarships, and complete placement testing.

Even though Connor Skarsten ran into some hurdles in his studies that he typically does not see, he said it was a wake-up call preparing him for high school.

“This year was a very good year for me because a lot of the times I don’t usually have to study,” he said explaining he typically can pass tests just by winging it. “But this year, like, really kind of challenged me. I’ve had to retake a few tests where I’ve learned I’ve needed to just take notes and study and that has prepared me for high school.”

Engebretsen feels confident going into the next grade level but is skeptical about being prepared to take the ACT. She said she hopes what was taught this past year covers all of the necessary topics and that if her graduating class around the state struggles, that they will be empathetic and allow another round of testing.

Nazari-Witt said he believes he is prepared for senior year. He thinks he learned as much as he would in a typical year, with his teachers assigning the appropriate amount of work. Where he did have concern was about having the proper amount of information and experience to be able to choose a college, as he said more than half of the ones he has looked at are still not allowing in-person campus tours.

As COVID-19 guidance relaxes and vaccines have become more widely available, some students said they have noticed a significant impact in their ability to see friends and interact in more pre-pandemic ways. Most others said it did not change much of what they were doing, but they seemed a little lighter, more positive in even the little impacts they did notice.

While several of these students did not mind following the guidance to protect themselves and others, many of those guidelines are what they say they are happy to leave behind.

“We walked into like, Target this weekend and I wasn’t wearing a mask. It was the weirdest feeling ever,” Engebretsen noted.

“I will not miss having to, like, tell everybody where I’m at constantly for contact tracing,” Nazari-Witt said, explaining that every time he needed to meet with a teacher, he had to remember every place he had been.

“I’m way happy to leave masks behind and also the whole social distancing, just being able to get up close with more people,” Christensen said. “I think more people are just beginning to become more comfortable with that, which is kind of nice to see.”

Nazari-Witt wanted to also urge people who are not vaccinated to not pretend that they are and stop wearing masks against CDC recommendations. He said he was concerned that would cause a setback in the progress made against the virus.

Looking forward

The pandemic highlighted a lot of different issues in the country and around the world. When asked if there was an issue that they felt hit them especially hard and believe more work needs to be done to solve, the answers varied.

“The technology use of people nowadays,” began Kayla Skarsten, “is like crazy that you can’t do anything, like, besides on your phone or something.”

She thinks the impact of that intense use of technology should be researched more, especially for how it impacts her generation.

“Global warming is definitely something that I’ve been invested in,” Connor Skarsten stated. He said he is concerned about the impacts of carbon-emitting power sources and that there are still people who do not believe it is a problem.

“I’ve noticed that people don’t really remember how to treat other people,” Durkee said. She understands people have been isolated from others for a long time and that everyone has had personal impacts, but hopes going forward people can be respectful of others. “Whether we are isolated or not, it’s not OK to treat people with disrespect.”

“Mental health is a big thing we’ve kind of focused in on this year, or I, myself have,” Christensen said.

Durkee and Engebretson hit on that too, saying that their generation, which has been heavily impacted by mental health issues like anxiety and depression, has been key to breaking down the stigma going forward.

“I had a friend come to me after school the other day just saying like, ‘Hey, it’s been really hard, like, do you think we could hang out sometime? Like, I miss you,’” Engebretson exclaimed. She said she was happy her friend felt comfortable being open about her vulnerability. “Just making sure that everyone knows that their voices are being heard and that what they’re feeling is OK and normal and just communicating with each other.”

In addition to being mindful of the problems happening in the world, the students plan to hold onto the lessons that the past year taught them.

“I just want to, like, be more mindful and more thankful of everything,” Ryman said. “Just, slow down and live everything,” be present in the moment. “I was always thinking about everything I’m doing and everything that was coming next instead of what is happening now.”

Christensen also has a greater appreciation of the events she enjoyed pre-pandemic, whether it was homecoming, prom, or sporting events. “Being happier knowing how lucky we are to actually be able to go to these events now,” that is what she wants to take forward with her into the future.

Durkee said she has always wanted to get a tattoo of a dash and feels the past year is a good reminder of why. The dash represents the time between the day of your birth and the day of your death. She was inspired by a poem inquiring whether you are happy with how you live your dash.

“Noticing how much the little things can affect other people and taking in each day as if it’s your last,” she explained. She wants to dedicate her life to helping people.

Engebretson was grateful for the extra time with her brother, who is a senior this year.

“Our whole family was just so tight during quarantine that I have no regrets about how much time we spent together as a family,” she said, explaining that the virtual calls between the family who would talk over each other were frustrating. “It drove me crazy then, but I’m just like, I’m so, so, so grateful for the memories with my family.”

“We were able to sort of adapt and use our technology powers that we seem to possess to, you know, keep those relationships alive,” Nazari-Witt said about the resilience of their generation.

“As a community, it’s just amazing what we have all done and amazing how much we have come together. I think it pulled us even more together that we ever have been,” Engebretsen said.

“We are a very strong generation and that I’m proud of all of us for making it through,” Durkee concluded

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