Looking back on a year of COVID for high schoolers

This First Person article is the experience of Priya Migneault, a Grade 11 student in Calgary. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

My Grade 11 year started like many other students this year; getting Starbucks with one friend, sitting outside, six feet apart. We talked about how it was absurd that high school students were going back in person with COVID-19 numbers continuing to rise, and after students had shown they could do school online.

The first few days back I enjoyed seeing my friends again, but wearing a mask for eight hours a day was exhausting. It also made it super challenging to meet new people, interact with peers, and develop new relationships, all things I was anticipating and looking forward to in high school. 

At the beginning, school staff members were trying their best with mandatory sanitizer at the front of the school and at the beginning and end of each class. Our desks were spread out, we could not eat in class, and the stairways only went down or up. However, the hallways were packed at every bell and collisions with other students were common, the buses were like sardine cans, and at lunch we all went outside and sat beside each other to eat.

Maskless lunches

I did not socially distance myself from my friends at lunch, as it was the only time of day when we had 30 minutes to take off our masks and chat with each other.

On top of the stress of being around so many people in a global pandemic, we had no idea if we were going to have exams until a few weeks prior. Some students studied rigorously in anticipation that we would, but many did not. In the end diplomas were cancelled, but students in Grade 10 and 11 still had to write a no-jeopardy exam, which let us feel a sense of relief from the constant stress and anticipation of this unknown. 

My school had the first student with COVID-19 in Calgary and was one of the first to declare an outbreak. Everyone was stressed, tired, and felt overworked. There was a collective feeling of just being done.

Very few people I know were still on board with staying in school, so when we all went into semi-lockdown in December, I felt relieved. It was awful not being able to see people over the holidays and it took a lot out of my mental health, but it was a breath of fresh air from school and the stress surrounding the pandemic. 

The worst part of being in high school during this pandemic has got to be the constant transitions from in-person to online, says Grade 11 student Priya Migneault. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Going back to school at the beginning of 2021 was horrible for my mental health and I stressed out over everything. The worst part of being in high school during this pandemic has got to be the constant transitions from in-person to online. The days at the beginning of any switch are difficult to deal with, because you either go from seeing no one to over 1,000 people or vice versa for an undefined period of time. It feels like no one can settle into a routine or get comfortable, because we are always looking over our shoulder waiting for new restrictions to be announced or a classroom exposure that will put us into isolation. 

I know that I, along with plenty of other students, tapped out of classes at the beginning of our mandatory online schooling in April, and I do not blame anyone for that. But how can some adults expect students to get great grades, maintain our mental health, and stay physically active when we are constantly thrown around like pawns into new environments?

Many adults who are struggling to cope with the pandemic and loneliness sometimes forget that it’s hard on teenagers too. We had lives before this and many of us were excited to see what high school was all about and although we are all in the same situation, adults are years ahead of us in experience with how to cope and accommodate their emotions. 

Nerve-racking shift

The shift to being back in school at the end of May was nerve-racking for many reasons and with graduation right around the corner, some students in Grade 12 have decided to skip school entirely for fear of getting isolated and having to miss our small, school-planned graduation ceremony. This has created a little issue with attendance, but many classes have already completed what they are required to teach and are wrapping up the school year. Other grades are also worried about being isolated or quarantined for two weeks in mid-June going into the summer holiday. 

I know that the staff at my school and many others are working as hard as possible to make sure we feel comfortable, but there is always that looming question of how long it will last. We still have to wear masks, sanitize before and after each class, and follow hallway directions, but with many students and staff having their first vaccination, everyone seems to have eased up on how tightly they follow the protocols. The new estimated dates put out by the Alberta government about lifting restrictions in the coming months seem positive, but from the conversations at school, many people will not dare to feel hopeful, as they do not want to be misled again. 

This is not the high school life I was imagining when I started and that does make me a bit sad, but I am glad to say that these were not my “glory days.” My life would be awfully dull if I referred to the three years before adulthood while living in a global pandemic as the best days of my life, because then what would I have to look forward to in the next few decades ahead of me?

To all of those who did not get the school year, “glory days,” or graduation they dreamed of, I see you and know that many of us share in that disappointment, but I also look forward to, and envision, all of the wonderful things yet to come.

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