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.