Students Looking Ahead After COVID-19 Challenges

In the fall, Loudoun’s public school students will all be back in the classroom for the first time in more than a year—a year of protests and pandemic that, some educators worry, left them behind as they lost family members, social circles and class time.

“We’ve had a lot that has happened over 2020 with the pandemic, with social unrest, and the youth of our county have taken that on the chin,” said Advisory Commission on Youth Chair Jeffrey Goldman when he gave the commission’s annual report to county supervisors on May 18. “Really, their lives have changed for the most part, missing out on events, missing out on milestones, and, in April of 2020, I think the summary of our report in getting a pulse on the mental state was a quote along the lines of, ‘I feel like I’m in a black hole and I have no way out.’ Sobering stuff.”

Freedom High School rising junior Anya Anand was one of those who chose to keep learning from home as some students returned to the classroom. At the time her family had to make that choice, she said, it seemed it could be until the summer before she was vaccinated, so the family chose safety. It was also less disruptive, since she had already done an entire quarter online. And she said she has been able to learn remotely, although it has come with its own challenges.

“I’ve had this conversation with a couple of my teachers. The first thing they’ll ask you is, ‘do you feel like you’ve learned anything this year?’” she said. “I do think I’ve learned a lot this year.”

But she said it’s time for her to get back into the classroom, where she values the collaborative experience.

“I think there might be some sort of adjustment, but I think the biggest thing I’m l looking forward to is just talking to my teachers and my classmates,” she said. “Honestly, there are people in my classes I’ve probably had four classes with, and we’ve been with each other for an entire year—I couldn’t tell you what they look like.”

There is one part of distance learning she would keep—the ability to record lessons to review again later, or if she misses class. And even for students eager to be back in the classroom, there will be a period of adjustment.

“I think in general, just empathy would probably be the biggest thing,” Anand said. “It’s going to be a very different standard of learning going back into the classroom. … Probably the first semester might be a little bit lacking, but it’s just going to take understanding on both sides.”

Loudoun’s young people have continued to do exceptional things even over the 14 months since schools closed. The Advisory Commission on Youth report highlights people like Colby Samide, the Woodgrove High School student who built desks for students while they were distance learning; Kamran Majid, Varun Pasupuleti and Rahul Kumar who created an international a research fellowship program; or former Briar Woods High School student Trace McSorley who made his National Football League debut this year as a quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens.

Teenagers took a leading role in protests over the summer of 2020 as long-simmering frustration over racial injustice boiled over into protests across the country—such as Ocean Akinotcho, a high school student who organized the largest Black Lives Matter protest in Loudoun, bringing thousands of people to Algonkian Regional Park. Akinotcho, who is graduating high school and will be going to school in Paris, isn’t just a leader in public.

“I decided to stay at home simply because I’m the main pillar of my family,” Akinotcho said. She said it was good to be studying from home because it made her more accessible during emergencies—such as when her parents caught COVID-19 in January.

“I was the only adult at home at the time. We had to find a way, because my parents couldn’t be with us, so we had to find some type of lodging, and we ended up staying at my aunt’s place for a couple of weeks,” Akinotcho said. “And if I wasn’t at home to pick up my sisters and make sure that they were getting the work done, it probably wouldn’t have happened.”

Still, she said, there were challenges with the schools.

“I felt that there was an obvious disconnect [w]here students would tell the administration that they were overwhelmed and oftentimes ignored,” Akinotcho wrote. “I think they could’ve been more considerate to the situation. Outside of that there were some teachers that really did make it easier on students that I personally couldn’t have made it through without.”

And even as she was able to be on hand for emergencies and also found some time to focus on herself, she said, “I think I’ve definitely missed out on some really important things just because it was my senior year.”

“I really do wish that everything just turns out what it was before 2020 hit us like the hammer that it was,” Akinotcho said.

“There’s a lot of kids who are social, who are adaptable, and are going to adapt just fine—they adapted okay to distance, they adapted okay to getting back into the hybrid and then more full-time, and they’ll adapt to this,” said licensed professional counselor and author Neil McNerney. “And then there’s the kids that are not as well versed socially, who are more introverted maybe, and they’re going to struggle more with it.”

He said the biggest advice he is giving to parents is to be patient, since distance learning could have been “quite a relief” to many kids.

“I think particularly from a policy standpoint, we’ve got to be more patient and more flexible, because the adjustment is going to be very difficult,” McNerney said. “And from a parenting standpoint, it’s the same thing—we need to not push them too hard to get back with your friends, et cetera, because for kids with social anxiety and anxiety in general, diving back into this is going to be difficult.”

Some students have thrived under distance learning, Goldman said.

“When you have groups of students that have anxiety about going to school, whether it’s bullying, social pressure or [they’re] ostracized or some other piece that’s in their world, when all of that was removed for online learning, they thrived and they could focus on school,” he said.

The current plan is for the school system to move all students back into the classroom for business as usual in August. School administrators have said they will use testing data from this semester to guide how best to support students next semester.

“Our recommendation is not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but for students who are anxious about returning to school to do so on their own schedule,” Goldman said.

As for how to get back into crowded school settings, McNerney said he will be suggesting young people start getting adjusted now—go to social gatherings over the summer so school crowds won’t be overwhelming in the fall.

“It’s a matter of finding small steps that you can take to get adjusted to that,” he said. “Don’t avoid the crowds, necessarily, this summer. Put yourself in situations where it’s not going to be overwhelming when you have do it.”

The largest issues middle and high schoolers reported in a survey for the commission were bullying and the availability of drugs—the same issues they have reported in previous years.

The county also continues to see racial disparities among its students. This year, Attorney General Mark Herring, after an investigation prompted by the Loudoun NAACP, set up a series of commitments with Loudoun County Public Schools to address admissions policies at the Academies of Loudoun, which had had a racially discriminatory impact. Meanwhile, Hispanic students continue to drop out at a rate several times higher than other students, with around a 10% drop out rate for Hispanic students versus rates at or below 2% for white and Black students.

“Everyone should be thanking our youth for all the sacrificing they have done in 2020,” Goldman said. “They have had their worlds turned upside down.”

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