So much has been written about students as they ventured through one of the most unusual times in the history of the world — a pandemic. While they are mentioned often in stories about how the COVID-19 crisis will affect them, sometimes their voices are not heard. To end a chaotic 2020-21 school year, the Generation Next staff reflected on what they learned during the past year and how it will impact them.

Niveditha Bala, senior, Mandela International Magnet School

The 2020-21 school year for seniors has been incredibly bittersweet. For many of us, most of it was spent online, meaning we, like the class of 2020, missed out on many of the events that make senior year so iconic and special. Similarly, the little time we did have together was fleeting — in many ways, it feels like we haven’t gotten to say our proper goodbyes to the people we have grown up with.

Yet, I found this school year taught me gratitude. It taught me to cherish the people around me, especially because in the fall, I will move out of state and leave behind the city I was born and raised in.

As graduation draws near, I find myself thinking about how much I will miss my classmates, who helped make finals and exams bearable. I will miss my teachers, who always joke around with their students. I will miss my church and the love that community has shown me throughout my life. I will miss my friends and family, who have been there for me. I am so grateful for all of them and all of the memories we have created together. They will always be a part of me, no matter where I go. In that sense, graduating — pandemic or not — is tinged with happiness and sadness, even though this won’t be the last time I will see the people in my life.

To those who have yet to graduate, I encourage you to treasure the people around you. Maybe going on grand adventures isn’t so feasible when you’re a sophomore drowning in homework and finals, but even the small moments make high school so much better. That’s why it’s so important to love and be grateful for those around you.

Emma Meyer, sophomore, Santa Fe Prep

The most important things to highlight about learning, especially as you reflect on yourself, aren’t academic. Besides, this year I didn’t retain a ton of factual information. That sounds bad, but it’s not.

I was lucky to be in an environment willing and able to put my needs as a person before the expectations I have to meet as a two-dimensional student.

It’s really hard to show love to this multitude, but as when my immediate family’s physical health was pitted against my mental health, floundering on a downhill trend — a decision no one should have to make — they chose me. I feel guilty and anxious, but I also feel better.

School is a strange place to be for all of my opinions. People are feeling safer amid COVID-19, which allows for social and physical situations that I didn’t even experience before the pandemic. Maybe it’s that I’m so much more aware of everyone around me — trying to calculate the risks I’m taking and not daring to round down the risk factor when it comes to the behavior of my family and friends.

I’m worried the fact that COVID-19 anxiety is ready to leave me makes me a bad person. I’m more controlling of other people, and my voice has most certainly gotten louder. Being aware of these things is weird, because it’s not usually the actions of a “good person,” when my goal is to protect every person.

In school, most things take second place to the fact that I need glasses.

Aviva Nathan, sophomore, Santa Fe Prep

This school year affirmed for me that what constitutes education is malleable. Education isn’t defined by place because my bedroom became my classroom. It isn’t defined by the presence of others, as I observed my classmates become muted pixels. Education isn’t the metric we use to quantify learning, as I discovered when I received positive feedback but struggled to stay engaged in class because of the difficulties of online learning. For me, the definition of education has been an evolving question throughout this school year.

Amid the irregularities of school — from Zoom classes to in-person instruction with precautions — I found a new classroom in my community. I became more involved in local and national politics, which compelled me to examine my core beliefs and discover other people’s realities, local and national policy, and the legislative process. I also started a sustainable and ethical clothing company this year, which necessitated a self-taught crash course on business, finance, marketing, design and sustainability. The media I consumed (from books to news articles and art) functioned as one of my most impactful educators.

Now, school is reverting back to its pre-pandemic state: seven hours a day of sitting at desks and two or three more hours at home doing homework for subjects I often struggle to find relevant. The questions I have about education, raised by the pandemic, remain. If the education system in America was founded during the Industrial Revolution — drawing upon methods of assembly lines in order to produce factory workers — why has this antiquated system not evolved to inspire and nurture critical and creative thinkers?

In the aftermath of the pandemic, we need to start anew instead of reverting back to the status quo.

Ben Timm, senior, Albuquerque Cottonwood Classical Preparatory School

The past school year forced students to completely reevaluate the way we did our work. While the flexibility of students was required, the societal expectations for our level of achievement were maintained. In an environment where the conventional methods of teaching and learning fail, one has to figure it out and not fall behind on material for the next test. Either one adapts quickly to the absolutely absurd changes or cannot cope with the environment. It is very much what I would describe as “academic selection.” The environment has changed, and those who have adapted survive.

Perhaps the experience of the school year is the most educative and valuable experience one could have. Life is not cushy, and we need to get used to figuring things out on short notice.

Stephany Zambrano, sophomore, Santa Fe High School

These past few months have been a new experience for all of us. We not only had to survive a pandemic, but some of us had to attend school under new circumstances. For the first time in my life, I had to do my schooling virtually — for a whole year. Through this experience, I learned to understand the importance of social interaction.

Having other people in my life had always been something I was accustomed to. I never realized how much of an impact it had on me until it became something unreachable. My friends were the only thing that helped me find the perfect work-life balance. During these past few months, I began to work harder than I was before and left little to no time for anything else.

Talking to others and going to school also helped me with my speech and grammar. As someone who had to learn English as a second language, it can be hard to communicate with others. During my time at home, I have been speaking a mixture of Spanish and English. Talking to an English speaker is more complicated than before because I splice Spanish phrases in my sentences. I can’t imagine how hard it will be for me and others when life returns to normal.

I have practically forgotten how to hold a conversation without stumbling over my words. Regardless, I am excited to hang out with my friends this summer to make up for all the lost time. I look forward to seeing things return to normal, and I hope to keep learning more through the years.

Sofia Barker, sophomore, Academy for Technology and the Classics

This school year wasn’t the easiest one I’ve had, but it guided me through a lot of self-growth and conclusions about my mental health.

This year, I struggled with motivation, anxiety and depression. Some days during online school, I could barely get out of bed and sit at my desk to pay attention during a class, and I rarely turned my camera on. I procrastinated and stressed over homework, with no intention of getting better in school and motivating myself to be fully present.

It was hard to communicate with my parents that I had problems with overthinking and felt lonely a lot of the time. I continued to bottle it all up and take it with me in the air-tight container that was my brain. Once school started in person, I struggled to find friends who weren’t outside my school, feeling very alone. I even considering switching schools to start fresh.

However, I’ve gotten the opportunity to do what I love again and feel a sense of happiness. I got a short (but sweet) soccer season, and I’m halfway through my track season. I met some amazing new people at school, and have found the courage to make friends with people I already knew there. I got help from my school counselor and have started to talk with my parents about my mental health. Today I am a lot better than I was maybe three months ago, and I hope this feeling will carry on for some time.

Ian Hernandez-Gomez, sophomore, The Masters Program

In all the years I’ve been in school, I don’t think I’ve gone through a crazier school year. Getting an education in front of a computer screen for nine months was one of the most interesting experiences of my life.

I completed my first year at a new school without ever setting foot on campus and meeting any of my teachers or classmates. This taught me that as frustrating and difficult as school can be, it’s where we get most of our social interaction, and it’s where we form most of our connections with other people. I met both of my best friends at our old elementary school, and it makes me sad knowing there are so many students who could’ve missed making lifelong connections this year because they never got to meet any of their peers.

However, being isolated from a lot of the world also made me realize not everyone in our lives is permanent. There are people not in my life anymore who I miss with all my heart, but I’ve come to realize this is a normal part of life, and even more people are going to come and go as the years go by.

I also learned the importance of many things, such as family, friends and health, as these are the things that make life so special. I feel I’ve grown so much as a person this last year, and I’ve realized so many things about myself and about life that make me much more confident to face the world after the pandemic.

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