NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Saturday, May 30th, 2020

The Pandemic is Personal: NPI’s Bobby Aiyer on graduating high school during COVID-19

Editor’s note: Wel­come to The Pan­dem­ic is Per­son­al, a week­ly series focus­ing on on how the nov­el coro­n­avirus (SARS-CoV­‑2) is affect­ing the every­day lives of peo­ple through­out the Pacif­ic North­west. We hope to enlight­en you and reflect on what you and oth­ers are address­ing as this pan­dem­ic runs its course.

If you have a sto­ry to tell, please feel free to con­tact us.

This week, NPI’s Tran­sit Advo­cate Bob­by Aiy­er reflects on what it’s been like to fin­ish high school dur­ing the coro­n­avirus pandemic. 

Bob­by joined NPI’s staff in Jan­u­ary of 2019 and helped orga­nize the cam­paign to defeat Tim Eyman’s incred­i­bly destruc­tive Ini­tia­tive 976, which sought to wipe out bil­lions of dol­lars in fund­ing for mul­ti­modal trans­porta­tion projects. I‑976 is cur­rent­ly being chal­lenged in court by a coali­tion of plain­tiffs that includes Seat­tle and King Coun­ty. Bob­by has also had the pri­ma­ry respon­si­bil­i­ty of pro­vid­ing NPI’s cov­er­age of Sound Tran­sit and King Coun­ty Metro’s work to improve mobility. 

I grad­u­ate high school in a few weeks, which makes me a mem­ber of the Class of 2020. Here are some fun facts about our class, the good souls born between the autumn of 2001 and the sum­mer of 2002:

  • We can’t quite decide if we’re part of the mil­len­ni­als or Gen­er­a­tion Z. I spent my ear­ly child­hood in a world with­out gad­gets, but became very pro­fi­cient in using them by the age of nine.
  • We were born after Sep­tem­ber 11th, 2001. We hear a lot about how the world changed on that day, but it was before my time.
  • Most of us were not alive when the Seat­tle Mariners last made the Major League Base­ball play­offs with Ichi­ro and Edgar Martinez.

It’s strange that my class is now infamous.

Every­one knows us as the class to grad­u­ate into a pandemic.

I’d nev­er expect­ed my class to receive so much atten­tion from so many peo­ple. After the state shut down schools for the rest of the school year in April, the vir­tu­al proms, grad­u­a­tions, and oth­er atten­tion afford­ed to us by fig­ures rang­ing from John Krazin­s­ki to Barack Oba­ma have been unprece­dent­ed and inspiring.

And while the atten­tion is nice, I think most of my class would agree that we’d give a lot to be stress­ing about prom groups and grad­u­a­tion invites in rel­a­tive obscu­ri­ty right now.

I can’t say I logged on to any of the events; at their core, these events empha­size that the Class of 2020 is los­ing out on some­thing, and I don’t like that insinuation.

I’ve found it hard to rumi­nate about the mile­stones I nev­er expe­ri­enced. It’s eas­i­er to just accept it as a strange tran­si­tion from one stage of life to the next.

In a world that is con­stant­ly chang­ing, the edu­ca­tion­al expe­ri­ence my peers and I are receiv­ing is ever-evolv­ing as well.

In ear­ly March, as reports of cas­es first began to spread in Wash­ing­ton, school gin­ger­ly sol­diered on. Maybe twen­ty per­cent of stu­dents stayed home each day; around dou­ble the aver­age dai­ly tal­ly. It took a week until the school dis­trict pro­vid­ed each teacher with clean­ing sup­plies, but they came.

Then the ham­mer fell on March 13th. As we head­ed home (lit­tle did I know, for the last time ever), the dis­trict announced that school would be sus­pend­ed for two weeks. The next day, the gov­er­nor announced a sus­pen­sion for six weeks.

We did­n’t have any new learn­ing until April 20th.

Teach­ers were required to give stu­dents enrich­ment mate­r­i­al, but engage­ment was option­al. And the clo­sure was extend­ed through the end of the school year.

Now, in our dis­trict, mid­dle and high school teach­ers post week­ly assign­ments for a grade. Live new instruc­tion over video call is not per­mit­ted; option­al online office hours video calls have sparse atten­dance. High school tran­scripts will read either A‑with-a-pan­dem­ic-aster­isk or Incom­plete, so as to not dis­ad­van­tage the siz­able minor­i­ty of stu­dents unable to access remote learn­ing at all.

Right­ful equi­ty con­cerns dri­ve cau­tious decision-making.

Yet inevitably, Wash­ing­ton par­ents are very wor­ried about stu­dents falling behind. Every­one is try­ing to make do, but the long-term con­se­quences of not adapt­ing instruc­tion meth­ods in the fall are troublesome.

Stu­dents only have so many years to spend in the class­room, and each grade’s cur­ricu­lum builds upon the next. The lone bright spot has been the admin­is­tra­tion of Advanced Place­ment (AP) exams for col­lege credit.

As edu­ca­tion sys­tem around the world can­celled final exams in lieu of teacher-pre­dict­ed results, the tests were short­ened for online administration.

So long to the three-hour alba­tross­es of exams hun­dreds of thou­sands of high school stu­dents endure each May in stuffy gyms (with proc­tors blar­ing through mega­phones remind­ing me of a favorite SNL sketch).

These tests last­ed forty-five min­utes long and were com­plet­ed from the com­fort of home. My Span­ish exam was entire­ly based on speak­ing and com­plet­ed on a cell phone appli­ca­tion. The app read out the prompts, record­ed my response, and was done in twen­ty min­utes. How cool is that!

The tests weren’t with­out con­tro­ver­sy. How­ev­er, the adapt­ed for­mats both ensured that stu­dents would receive the col­lege cred­it they earned, and marked a move towards reduc­ing the impor­tance of stan­dard­ized test­ing in admissions.

I am priv­i­leged to go to a pub­lic school where the vast major­i­ty of stu­dents go on to attend col­lege after grad­u­a­tion. Much like the rest of the world, we’ve been mak­ing the most of a strange situation.

As the world began mov­ing online, we were faced with a crit­i­cal deci­sion: com­mit­ting to a col­lege for the next four years of our lives from our bedrooms.

In the spring, col­lege-bound kids across the nation attend cam­pus vis­its or local infor­ma­tion ses­sions to find the best fit and make a deci­sion. The Class of 2020 was no dif­fer­ent, but instead we were asked to make our deci­sions through­out the month of April, at the height of lock­downs and uncer­tain­ty about the future.

We made up our minds not know­ing a lot of things.

Not know­ing if our fam­i­lies would still be able to con­tribute finan­cial­ly to our edu­ca­tions. See­ing the uncer­tain and mea­ger finan­cial aid offers that sud­den­ly-pen­ny pinch­ing uni­ver­si­ties were hand­ing out.

No clue whether our edu­ca­tions would be moved online.

Not know­ing whether an online edu­ca­tion would be worth it.

Uncer­tain­ty about when it’ll be safe to head to cam­pus — and if we left home for the first time to col­lege, when it would ever be safe to return to our families.

For the unlucky, not know­ing whether the insti­tu­tions would sur­vive come fall.

I per­son­al­ly know mul­ti­ple seniors just like me whose col­lege deci­sions were shaped by these vari­ables: turn­ing down dream schools they’d worked hard to gain admis­sion to because they could­n’t make the mon­ey work; decid­ing to enroll in uni­ver­si­ties clos­er to home to avoid the risk of long-dis­tance trav­el; pre­fer­ring small­er, rur­al col­leges in states with low case counts in a vain hope that the fall term will look some­thing like what we think col­lege could be.

Pub­lic and com­mu­ni­ty col­lege has become a much more pop­u­lar option.

While decreas­ing nation­wide, total first-year enroll­ment for Fall 2020 actu­al­ly increased slight­ly at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Washington.

It makes sense: if you’re going to com­plete a col­lege edu­ca­tion from your bed­room, why spend go tens of thou­sands into debt for a pri­vate edu­ca­tion when local pub­lic insti­tu­tions will pro­vide a sim­i­lar, if not bet­ter, experience?

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, our path ahead is murky. Most col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties have yet to make a final deci­sion on what the upcom­ing aca­d­e­m­ic term will look like.

For the few that have decid­ed, the path ahead varies:

  • The twen­ty-three cam­pus large Cal­i­for­nia State Uni­ver­si­ty sys­tem plans on most cours­es being online for 2020–21, with lim­it­ed exceptions
  • Mon­tana State Uni­ver­si­ty moved up its fall term to end before Thanks­giv­ing, pri­or­i­tiz­ing an on-cam­pus, social­ly-dis­tanced model
  • Near­ly all major Cana­di­an uni­ver­si­ties, includ­ing the Uni­ver­si­ty of British Colum­bia and McGill Uni­ver­si­ty, have announced total dis­tance learn­ing through the end of 2020

When you com­pare the pub­lished plans, the com­mon­al­i­ties are clear: no large lec­tures, only small dis­cus­sion groups or labs; no room­mates, and very few oppor­tu­ni­ties to make the inter­per­son­al con­nec­tions that are wide­ly con­sid­ered inte­gral to the Amer­i­can col­lege experience.

I think we’re all disappointed.

And I’ll be hon­est: ini­tial­ly, the sense of loss was huge. The spring of senior year is a chance to cel­e­brate our accom­plish­ments of the past four years. To thank teach­ers and men­tors (and pull pranks on them), to cel­e­brate friend­ships, to enjoy life in our home­towns before we head our sep­a­rate ways.

We under­stand what’s being asked of us, and we want to do the right thing. We are in a for­tu­nate posi­tion: we com­plet­ed most of our high school edu­ca­tion before the pan­dem­ic and have secure, if ever-chang­ing, plans for next fall.

We are thank­ful for the roofs over our heads, for the food on the table, for stay­ing healthy and being less at-risk for the coronavirus.

The Class of 2020 has had it good. At my pub­lic school on the East­side, noth­ing has been unprece­dent­ed­ly bad dur­ing the past ten years of our lives. It was unprece­dent­ed­ly nor­mal. No waves of mass lay­offs dur­ing eco­nom­ic cri­sis, no fall-out drills in the event the bomb hits us, no anx­i­ety over being draft­ed to fight for­eign wars. Just good old-fash­ioned high school things: sec­ond jobs, Fri­day night foot­ball tail­gates, pesky labs you for­got to make up.

You hear a lot some­times, the crit­i­cism that young peo­ple are too unap­pre­cia­tive, self-absorbed, mate­ri­al­is­tic — you know, the avo­ca­do toast trope. While I’d argue that’s inac­cu­rate, I think my gen­er­a­tion always has the poten­tial to grow.

Know­ing­ly or not, a lot of us took that sta­bil­i­ty for grant­ed. We now know it not to be so. This is our gen­er­a­tion-defin­ing cri­sis, and it will be so inter­est­ing to see how we apply our expe­ri­ences as we become more pow­er­ful in society.

We are gain­ing so much per­spec­tive. Every sin­gle one of us is being taught to val­ue the things that mat­ter. To find out what mat­ters to us. To be flex­i­ble and under­stand­ing. To make sac­ri­fices for the greater good.

Just like Sep­tem­ber 11th, 2001 changed a gen­er­a­tion, the world­wide nov­el coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic will too. It’s already happening.

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