Marasia Harris, 15, poses after her first day of sophomore year at Central High School. Photo by Bridget Fogarty.

This story was originally published in El Perico on Sept. 20, 2021.

Sometimes it’s hard for Marasia Harris to believe she’s just begun her sophomore year at Central High School. After all, she never really got to finish eighth grade.

“I didn’t fully realize I was out of middle school until after I’d already started high school,” the 15-year-old said.

When the Omaha Public Schools district cancelled school in March 2020 for two weeks, and then for the year due to COVID-19, Harris said her classes ended early, and she and her classmates instead had the option to complete extra, ungraded assignments.

“I did a few for the first few weeks,” Harris said. “But as it got to April and May I was just like, is there really a point in this anymore?”

For the past two school years, high schoolers like Harris have had to navigate some of the most formative and transitional times of their lives with little closure and much uncertainty amid an ongoing deadly pandemic. Though loosened CDC guidelines and vaccination eligibility for young people ages 12 and older induced a sense of normalcy during the summer, the surging Delta variant brings a sobering reality: Omaha’s students and teachers have entered a third school year of pandemic learning.

“The senior class is the only class that has had a normal year of high school,” said Dr. Rony Ortega, the principal of Bryan High School. “Every other class’s high school experience has been interrupted by the pandemic.”

Like other OPS schools, Bryan students began remotely last year and then moved to hybrid teaching with masked, in-person learning or continued online classes. Online classes have proved a challenge for students and teachers alike.

Nationwide, school district officials and public health experts agree that in-person learning is most beneficial to students. But not everyone has had the same access to in-person learning since January.

One study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in Nebraska, students of color, including any student who is Hispanic, had about 10.6% less access to full-time/in-person school on average than white students from January to April 2021. Issues like finding accessible transportation, risking potential coronavirus exposure and having family responsibilities contributed to a higher number of Black and brown students in particular not having the chance to access in-person learning.

“Some of our kids have been remote since March of 2020,” Ortega said. “We’re going to have to reconnect and re-engage these students differently.” One strategy he said he wants the school to get better at is “identifying in real time when a student is struggling, and then to be able to intervene right away.”

Though the return to in-person learning is promising to mend those gaps, it’s a concerning gamble for some. Because of the emerging Delta variant, return to in-person learning puts unvaccinated young people at a particularly high risk of infection, according to health officials.

Luis Morales, 17, spent the first semester of his junior year at Omaha South Magnet High School online. Photo by Bridget Fogarty.

After Luis Morales spent the first semester of his junior year at Omaha South Magnet High School online, his family encouraged him to return to in-person learning in January, despite his fears of getting infected with the virus at school and transmitting it to his parents and sister.

Back in school, “it was just a nightmare,” 17-year-old Morales said.

He had to walk alternate routes between classes to avoid cramped hallways that were nearly impossible to social distance in. Though he’s wary of the Delta variant, Morales felt safer going back to school this fall because he is vaccinated and because his school has required everyone in the building to mask up.

Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 and wearing masks are still the most effective protectors against the virus. Still, about 47% of Douglas County residents ages 12 to 17 are not yet fully vaccinated, according to the Douglas County Health Department.

Westside senior Onyah Rush, 17, decided to wear a mask to class, though her high school recommends but does not require it. On her first day of her senior year at Westside High School, Rush and her friends could count on their hands how many students wore masks.

Contracting COVID-19 and spreading it to her family has been a concern since she returned to in-person learning last spring. But Rush didn’t initially go back to class, and she said the isolation of online learning impacted her mental health.

Isolation of Pandemic Learning Impacts Mental Health

“In the beginning, it felt like I had everyone to talk to,” Rush said. “Then when it started getting towards three months and four months, it felt like I had just myself in my room, and four walls and a TV and a whole bunch of homework piling up.”

In those later months, Rush was diagnosed with depression.

“It was very challenging for me to just sit in a room and have all these thoughts and all this homework,” she said. “During your teenage days, I think it’s definitely harder to go through changes, especially when you’re locked down.”

Since the pandemic’s start, experts across the country have called out warnings of a mental health crisis. After a full year of pandemic learning, statistics show just how much teenagers’ mental health has suffered during this time, especially among BIPOC and LGBTQ+ youth, who are more vulnerable to negative mental health impacts.

High school to me is supposed to be about growth,” said Harley Lawton, a Central High School sophomore. Photo provided by Lawton.

Central High School sophomore Harley Lawton was also diagnosed with depression during online, remote learning. The 14-year-old knew they had ADHD before the pandemic began, but the collision of work and school made it tougher to manage.

“With ADHD, I associate school with work,” Lawton said. “At home, that’s where I can relax.” When online school blurred the lines between work and home, Lawton’s motivation dropped and anxieties soared as they felt pressured by expectations to get good grades and “be OK.” Lawton found strength to work with a therapist, as well as share how they were doing with some teachers.

Ted Dondlinger, a high school counselor who focuses on supporting students’ social and emotional health at Westside, said asking for help can be the hardest step for high schoolers experiencing negative impacts on their mental health.

“We talk about shame, and you just have to start sharing and allowing people to help you,” he said, “which is really, really, really mature … and it’s tough for adults to do this, let alone kids to kind of say, ‘You know what, I need some help. Will you please help me?’”

Returning to in-person learning was better for Lawton’s mental health but not a simple solution to the issue.

“During the school days it honestly felt lonely, which is why I was on my phone talking with my friends for a lot of the time, sad to say,” Lawton said. “High school to me is supposed to be about growth. I couldn’t necessarily grow when there wasn’t really any contact between people.”

Lessons Learned, Lessons to Offer

Besides the abundance of lessons students learned, there are some they want administrators to try.

Lawton hopes the district and administration keeps teachers, families and students in the loop with fast-changing information. “Everyone was learning things right as the teachers were,” Lawton said.

Harris realized the chance to wake up later gave her more energy throughout the online school days, and she often finds herself more tired now. She wonders if school administrators would ever consider pushing back the day’s start time.

If he could, Morales would change COVID-19 safety regulations and make sure all who are not vaccinated stay home or wear a mask.

And Rush wants adults to understand how challenging going to high school in a pandemic is.

“It’s hard to understand (school) and do homework, when everything’s going on, and you’re focused on what’s happening in the world,” she said. “Is everyone OK? There’s variants and vaccinations and seeing what’s wrong and new things happening. And it’s very hard to do that when you have all this homework stacked up, and you’re still worried about graduating in your future. So, it’s definitely hard when you have a lot of things on your mind.”

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Bridget Fogarty, Report for America Corps Member

Bridget Fogarty is a Report for America Corps member reporting with The Reader and its billingual (Spanish/English) sister publication El Perico.

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