Think for a moment about how many people consider their high school years as the happiest times of their lives, where foundational experiences begin to shape identities for the future.

The students of St. Joseph, like many others, will remember first the time they lost.

It’s not as though it wasn’t for a good reason. Though she rues what COVID-19 has cost her in academics, social interactions and emotional agony, Allison Adkison knows viruses have no feelings and do not care that for months on end, “school” consisted of rolling out of bed, logging in to virtual classrooms, striving to be engaged and to pay attention, sometimes managing to do it, sometimes not, logging back off, falling back asleep.

“I spent half a year in my room, listening to Zoom meetings, doing nothing else,” the Lafayette High School student said. “Which, you know, is terrible. But I still found a way to help it build my foundation. To pursue my dreams.”

To Adkison, the sacrifice simply had to be made. Though this has been an inescapable part of her life since March 2020, more than two years later, the necessity to give of oneself for the health and protection of others, the challenges of a 100-year pandemic, are not “over,” just “better.”

“High school now seems so small compared to, like, what the scale of COVID is right now,” she said. “Because COVID is a life-changing thing. You can live or survive not going to high school, but if you get COVID, you could die. So that pushed high school into the back of your mind.”

New virus news events arrived too hard and too fast to be tracked. There is this novel coronavirus. Now there are cases in the United States. Hey, it looks like spring break will be going on a bit longer than planned. Then: Lockdown. Don’t leave your house. Nobody knows what effect this will have on young people. Be careful what you eat, what you touch, social distance, wear a mask, wash your hands.

Best of luck finding any toilet paper.

It was so easy to make online classwork an afterthought, just the lowest priority thing. Frederick Rivas-Giorgi, no academic slouch in light of having attained a perfect score of 36 on the ACT (to use just one example from his stellar classroom career), found himself not immune to this.

“They used the term ‘new normal.’ But nothing was normal. Going into that summer (2020) and then fall, my junior year, it was, anything could change in a second,” said Rivas-Giorgi, who will graduate from Central High School this weekend. “We were in person, and then online, and then we were hybrid, and it was just a mess. Even this year, you know, there have been a lot of changes. Although we’re starting to pick up and put the pieces back together, it’s still very different from what it might have been.”

Students in seats

With hybrid education coming to an end in the spring 2021 semester, Taten Piepergerdes savored the chance to finish 11th grade and head into a promising senior year. As a class leader at Benton High School, he came to recognize something was amiss.

“With the pandemic and having that time off, I think people got lazy,” he said. “Maybe that’s not totally fair, but they got used to being in a situation where they did not have to do schoolwork, did not have to study for tests. And so they got a little taste of that, and they really liked it. There’s so many students, I think, who want to go back to that, where school is not as demanding.”

Students are not showing up to class, or engaging with and completing virtual assignments, on levels that can be considered satisfactory. A school building is considered to have good attendance if 90% of all students enrolled there are showing up for 90% or more of their classroom hours or logging in for equivalent hours if they are enrolled in the St. Joseph Virtual Academy.

Data published by the ongoing Vision Forward community engagement project illustrates the picture. There are 173 scheduled days of school per year. Students who don’t meet the good attendance benchmark are considered to have missed at least 17 equivalent days of school. As of April, only SJSD high school seniors are meeting a 75% to 90% benchmark. In short, that means three out of four 12th graders are participating in nine out of every 10 class hours, or better. All freshmen, sophomores and juniors are below this mark.

At the end of April, Benton reported a 66.73% good attendance figure for all grades. Central reported a 75.86% mark. Lafayette was at 69.17%. Overall, 72.31% of all high school students are attending 90% or more of their class hours.

“I think, personally, with COVID, having such an irregular schedule ... where education was not as prominent within our daily lives, really puts things into perspective,” said Maylee Shifflett, a Benton junior. “Especially for students who already struggled with showing up to school. It’s not something that they love or really see the purpose for yet. It makes it very difficult for them to comprehend. When you’re away from the school building, you might be less inclined to realize, ‘Oh, hey, this is very important.’”

Vision Forward will develop an action plan for the SJSD over the coming summer. Lafayette Principal Ashly McGinnis, who is about to become the school district’s assistant superintendent of academic services, said in April that recovery starts by revealing the whole extent of the problem to the public. Only with the active participation of parents will it be possible to take what we have now — a “normal” five-day weekly school schedule — and have kids showing up, engaging and learning on a “normal” level.

“People can draw their own conclusions and connect the dots, but for me, test scores and academic performance will not improve until we can get more students in seats,” she said. “Attendance affects achievement.”

A part of history

As a sophomore at Central, Zoe Trotter has been in high school by and large in the time after the lockdown, which she experienced in middle school. This gives her a slightly different perspective.

“It was upsetting that it took away my eighth grade track season,” she said. “A whole social aspect of it, is mainly what it took away from me.”

Her family went overseas on vacation in the spring break 2020 period, and there was a temporary worry that they wouldn’t be allowed to re-enter the United States as the nation experienced the worst travel disruption since the 9/11 attacks. She said it is likely these events will be remembered like that.

“We have talked about in my history classes that this is going to be something so big that it will end up in the history books, which is kind of crazy to think about,” Trotter said.

Adkison said she is still trying to process that her graduation from Lafayette is only days away. Is this really it? That was high school? This is how I’m going to remember it?

“The movies aren’t reality. You grow up watching ‘High School Musical,’ and you expect that every day is going to be all about talking, partying, hanging out,” she said. “Kind of hard to do when you’re not supposed to be within six feet of your friends. All of these expectations you’ve had since you were a child were ripped away from you ... It took something I was looking forward to for, I guess since I was a sophomore, 15, 16 years of my life, and turned it all on its head. No one can guess what comes next.”

Rivas-Giorgi said that although we’re starting to pick up and put the pieces back together, this memory is going to stick. But, so will the lessons we’ve all learned to get through it.

“This is a generation of kids who haven’t really had a real and authentic school year for almost two academic years,” he said. “Trying to put everyone back into the mold of, ‘Oh yeah, this is how we do things’ and whatnot is easier said than done.

“Nevertheless, I’m confident that we’ll get there. The political and social systems that we have had to build basically as new challenges kept happening every day have held together, and we may actually be better off.”

Marcus Clem can be reached at marcus.clem@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NPNowClem

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