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How The Pandemic Transformed Senior Year For 3 High School Students

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now I want to check in with some folks we met last July to see how they're doing. Last summer, amid a surge of coronavirus infections in many places and debates over how or whether to go back to in-person school, we talked to three high school students about how the pandemic was affecting their lives. The trio were entering their senior year, a crucial period normally filled with college applications or making other future plans, planning celebrations and making memories with friends. But a lot changed because of the coronavirus. And they, like most other people, have had to make difficult choices.

A lot has changed since we last spoke, including a vaccine and a new presidential administration, so we thought this would be a good time to check in with those students about what senior year has been like amid a global pandemic. And joining us once again are Aya Hamza. She's a senior at Coral Gables High School in South Florida.

Aya, welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

AYA HAMZA: Thank you for having us back.

MARTIN: Madeline Mueller is a senior at Paradise Valley High School in Phoenix, Ariz. Madeline, welcome back to you.

MADELINE MUELLER: Thank you so much for having us.

MARTIN: And Bronte Roltsch is a senior at McKinney High School in McKinney, Texas, which is just outside of Dallas. Bronte, it's so good to have you back as well.

BRONTE ROLTSCH: Thank you.

MARTIN: So last summer, just to sort of catch up here, school districts across the country - they were debating whether classes should be remote or in person or hybrid. And as briefly as you can, I just wanted to ask each of you how you've been attending classes until now and how it's going. So, Madeline, you want to start?

MUELLER: Sure, I'll start. We did go back in person for our second quarter, but it didn't work out that well. We had to leave school after four weeks of being in person and return to online school.

MARTIN: How was it? What was that like?

MUELLER: It was very strange. Only - not a lot of seniors came back at my school. I believe my calculus class only had three other in-person students in it. And there was virtually no one on campus, as well as the fact that we weren't allowed to sort of interact in the same way we usually do. We had specified routes we had to walk along campus to reduce contact with other people. But it was just very strange.

MARTIN: Bronte, what about you? What was your situation?

ROLTSCH: Back in July, our school had decided that the first three weeks would be all virtual for students and that from there they would do a hybrid. And it stayed that way. However, two weeks before winter break, they did decide that any students who had nine or more absences - and not full-day absences, like, any unexcused absence - and students who are failing two or more classes had to be in person for the second quarter - or second semester. So this semester, there's a lot more people in person. But I've been online for the entire year, and I plan to stay online for the rest of it.

MARTIN: How come you made that choice, if it's - if you don't mind my asking?

ROLTSCH: Well, for me, not only do I think that I work better online, I think that I can focus a lot better than in in-person classes. But I think that my family's been pretty COVID-safe. And the only reason that my brothers are back in person is because of sports or my little brother who has to take extra classes for dyslexia. So the ones of us who can be home are home. And so I think that it was just the safer choice for me.

MARTIN: And, Aya, what about you? What's your situation?

HAMZA: I personally, again, as I mentioned last time, opted to go in person. But I decided not to do that, given I felt it wasn't the best choice that they were making. And so although people were encouraged to go back if able - and there was a lot of pressure on the local school district to do so - my school, at least, our teachers really urged us to stay home if we can. A lot of our teachers sharing their families who were high-risk, and they themselves were kind of forced to go back. But students can opt to be in person. I would estimate I think 10% of my 3,100-plus school is back. But a lot of people have been going back home and are subjected to 14-day quarantine periods. As - you know, as can be assumed, a lot of people have been attending parties, which has actually gotten a few of my teachers sick.

MARTIN: So just last week, the College Board announced it was getting rid of the optional essay on the SAT subject tests. So what's your situation with the SAT? I mean, Aya, do you want to start?

HAMZA: For sure. So I had scheduled myself for both the SAT and ACT, which both ended up being canceled four times. And there were available test sites, I believe, starting in October for me. But at that point, A, I didn't feel safe going to a testing site. Again, my dad - he owns a local convenience store, and I didn't want to possibly, you know, get - infect him. And secondly, at that point, I didn't want to focus my attention to taking a test once and felt that my time was better spent working on my essays. And in terms of the subject tests, I never really had the chance to take them, as well as the optional essay, given I wasn't able to take a test. But I do think it's interesting for the classes before - beyond us how colleges are going to gauge our academic profile going forward as that's something that hasn't even been specified for us.

MARTIN: So what are you going to do? Aya, have you been able to take - you haven't been able to take the test, right?

HAMZA: No. But thankfully, out of the colleges I applied to, only two of them - Florida is one of the few states that still requires that we take the SAT or ACT in order to apply to public institutions. So the majority of my schools - it's only those two that, you know, require it - are test-optional. So when they're looking at my academic profile, they'll see my GPA and, like, other factors, class rank. And, you know, I guess I'll just go from there.

MARTIN: Well, it sounds like you all are handling it as well as can be. But I want to ask you a tough question. I mean, we've been doing a lot of reporting, and a lot of folks say that a lot of kids are depressed. And it's just - they're - it's not just that you're missing things. It's just everything seems kind of harder than it should be. And I just - forgive me for putting you on the spot, but I just wanted to ask, do you think that that's true? Do you think that a lot of the - your friends, peers, your - maybe yourselves - maybe a little depression because - and if so, you know, what do you think would make a difference? Madeline, what about you?

MUELLER: This - like, this whole school year for me, at least, has just felt incredibly isolating. A few of my friends I haven't seen since we went home before spring break. And I didn't expect, obviously, that we weren't going to come back. And communicating online, as much as our teachers try and have been, like, valiant in their efforts to get us to communicate and participate and do other things, it's just not the same. Like, when I sit in my physics class with my teacher, who I love and whose class is probably one of the most fun classes I've ever been in, it just doesn't feel the same. There's not interaction. There's not a lot of crosstalk. There's no, like, inside jokes anymore. It's just the lesson and the teacher trying to make it better for everyone. But, like both of the other two girls, I'm really looking forward to college and hopefully having more interaction.

MARTIN: Well, once again, I just respect all of you so much for, you know, trying to power through and, you know, try to keep things in perspective and, you know, do the best you can. Before we let you go, the last time you were on, a number of you mentioned that the pandemic had kind of shifted your focus a bit, that a couple of you said that it had forced you to slow down a bit and appreciate life more, even though this wasn't something that you had picked. I wonder if this period has caused you to reflect on your postgraduation plans and think differently about the future in a way that you might not have had you not gone through this. Bronte, what about you?

ROLTSCH: I think that overall, with quarantine and having a lot of time to, you know, think and reflect on what I want to do after graduation and in college and after that, I think I've come to appreciate, like, the little things that I have now, whether it be my family or my friends and the friends that I'm going to have with me next year in college and after that.

Also, really appreciating the career that I want to have in journalism - I think that the news in the past year has been such a big part of daily life. And I think I really appreciate and know for sure that that is what I want to do one day. And I think that with this time I've had to reflect, it's just made me appreciate a lot more that I don't think I appreciated as much earlier.

MARTIN: Well, thank you all so much. Let's stay in touch. Let's stay in touch. And want to hear how things are going - almost there, not quite there yet.

That's Bronte Roltsch. She's a senior at McKinney High School, which is just outside of Dallas. We also heard from Madeline Mueller, who's a senior at Paradise Valley High School in Phoenix, Ariz., and Aya Hamza, a senior at Coral Gables High School in South Florida. Thank you all so much. Appreciate you all.

MUELLER: Thank you so much. Have a wonderful day.

ROLTSCH: Thank you so much.

HAMZA: Thank you.

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