COVID-19 from the High School Student Perspective

Last month, we reflected on how COVID-19 is impacting admission professionals, especially with the adjustment to virtual recruitment and working from home. This month, we wanted to hear from current high school students about their experiences during the pandemic, including online courses and a virtual college search process. Three students participated in the interview via email. Alex and Marta are high school juniors from Iowa City West High School; they are at the beginning of their college search process. Brooke is a senior from Glenbrook North High School in Illinois who plans to attend the University of Iowa. Thank you to all three of them for answering our questions!


What has online learning been like for you over the past few weeks?

Marta: The transition to online learning has been interesting to say the least. My school, Iowa City West, is being incredibly accommodating by offering a variety of options for continuing our education online. We can choose to continue for credit, take a pass on the classes we were passing before the break, or simply withdraw for the course. Students can also choose a combination of these things (i.e.) passing one class and continuing the other for credit. Although I am personally choosing to continue all my classes for credit, I think that flexibility the district is offering is extremely important, especially for students, who may have different needs or situations. The pandemic affects everyone differently, and I think that it is important that the district has recognized that and given students options.

Alex: Online learning has had its ups and downs for me. As someone who learns better when I'm able to do so independently, I feel as though this remote style of education has been beneficial for me. I'm able to spend more time teaching myself material rather than sitting in a classroom doing busy work, and I think in some ways I'm learning better than I normally do. That being said, it is also quite hard to stay disciplined when I'm not being "forced" to learn in a classroom setting. Time management has been an issue for me and many of my peers, and I have found myself pushing things back to their due date a lot more than normal.

Brooke: It has been a bit strange. It is nothing like being in the classroom, but I think my teachers are honestly doing the best they can with e-learning to try to keep the class together.


Do you feel fully engaged with your learning while doing schoolwork from home?

Marta: To be perfectly frank, no. There’s something about a screen that almost dehumanizes my teachers and classmates, which can be sad for me to witness. That said, I think video calls are a good opportunity to keep us connected in a safe way, and that the school is doing everything they can to maintain a sense of normalcy and community during these strange times. 

Alex: It has been difficult to stay fully engaged when I'm doing schoolwork at home. Virtual classes/Zoom meetings, for one, can be very distracting. I often find myself more focused on what a classmate has going on in their camera frame than what my teacher is saying. Because of this I think most of my teachers have elected to handle their Zoom sessions like office hours as opposed to actual classes with lessons. This means that most learning is done independently, which definitely comes with its own challenges. It's difficult to stay 100% focused on the task/lesson/assignment at hand when your phone, your TV, your gaming system etc. are a few feet away. Always having that option of closing my laptop and starting a TV show or doing something else that's unproductive has made virtual learning difficult, but I think that I've also learned a lot of self discipline during this period.

Brooke: Not really. I am a very physical learner so it is hard for me to be engaged with something when I can’t be asking constant questions and spitting ideas off other people in class. I try to fully engage myself, but it is just not the same as being in a classroom. 


Has your motivation toward school and learning changed since taking classes online?

Marta: I think that my motivation hasn’t necessarily changed, but my perspective certainly has. I still want to excel in my classes, but now in addition to regular stress of getting everything done, there are so many terrible things happening around the world and all of that hurts, while I’m extremely grateful and privileged that it isn’t affecting me as directly as others, it takes a toll on mental wellbeing. Since school closures began, I have assumed my new role of print editor in chief for my school’s newspaper, the West Side Story. That keeps me busy pretty much the entire day, which I am extremely thankful for. It is wonderful to stay busy and have something I’m really passionate that I can focus on during these strange times. It helps me keep a sense of normalcy as well as keep me passionate and engaged.

Alex: My motivation towards school has definitely decreased significantly since classes have been moved online, and I think a lot of that has to do with the credit and grading system in my district. Having the option to change a class from a letter grade to a "pass" at any point has made me feel as though successes and failures in school don't have as significant of consequences as they would have when we were in "real" school. At least for me I also feel a lot of uncertainty when it comes to how colleges are going to interpret or accept our grades, and a sense of "is any of this going to matter?" amidst all of the uncertainty right now. I realize that school and learning goes beyond grades and credit which is why I think I have continued working hard in my classes, especially those that are foundational for classes I will take next year (e.g. Pre-Calculus).


What are some of the things you miss the most about being at school?

Marta: I miss everything, both the good. And the bad. I’ve always thought that while school can be stressful and overwhelming at times, the beautiful thing about it is that not only does it help us learn academically, but it teaches us how to interact with each other effectively and form a community. For example, If I am struggling with understanding a math concept (which I often am) a friend who is in a higher math class will help me. It’s this sense of camaraderie and community that I miss most of all, and the little things. Walking to class with your friends, going outside during lunch, inside jokes, I’m even starting to miss school lunch.

Alex: The number one thing I miss about being at school is my extracurricular activities. I gain so much inspiration and motivation from working with my peers on projects outside of school and not having that in my life has definitely affected me a lot. Luckily, for a lot of my activities we are continuing to work remotely. For example, our school newspaper, the West Side Story (, check it out!!), has continued to publish articles in both our print and online publications. I have recently taken on the role of editor-in-chief for the website and having that creative outlet has been so valuable for me during this period - not to go on a tangent about journalism but being a part of something that is able to entertain and inform people during these uncertain times has been so special! I am also in Business Professionals of America at West High and we have been staying connected with one another through Zoom and working hard on recruiting efforts for next year, despite the cancellation of our national conference. Another thing I miss about school is just the sense of comradery that comes with being in a relatively small class of students. Everyone pretty much knows each other and even though I wasn't friends with everyone there're just some people whose presence you miss whether it's in the classroom or in your life in general. I also miss my teachers a ton! I have so many great mentors and role models at West High so it's been hard to be away from them, but Zoom classes have been a good way to stay somewhat connected.

Brooke: The thing I miss most out of being in school is definitely the community I was a part of. My high school was very community-based and we all had such a strong bond as a class and just as a school overall. I also miss the in-person learning that I was a part of day-to-day because now I am missing the stories and real-world examples my teachers may have shared in class. 


How are you interacting with your friends and peers now that you don’t see them at school every day?

Marta: I try to reach out to my peers as often as I can, creating class group chats and other things to facilitate communication. I enjoy checking in on others, and making sure they are okay, but it can be stressful for me to not be able to see them in person and know that they are doing well. As for my close friends, we are all well aware of the very real dangers of the virus, not as much for us specifically, but for more vulnerable members of our community. Because of this, my friends and I have gotten creative with the ways we interact with each other. My lunch table has started group facetime during lunch, my friends and I go to watch the sunset from the safety of our cars, 6 feet apart. Our meeting up in a car “circle” and talking from the safety of our trunks. It truly is wonderful to be able to see friends in person, and laugh with them, even if we have to maintain our distance. I am also so grateful we live in a place where we are still able to go outside, I’ve found that helps a lot.

Alex: Quarantine has definitely forced my friends and I to get creative when it comes to hanging out, and has also just made me so appreciative of them and the times we've had together. Video chat is a big thing that we use. We will sometimes get together on a Zoom call and play cards using a website where you can generate a deck of cards. We also just text a ton about things we're doing to stay entertained and any problems we're going through while stuck at home. When talking over the phone doesn't cut it, we'll go to a parking lot and park our cars ten feet apart in a circle so that we can see each other's faces from a (safe) distance. It's hard to stay away from my friends but I think we all recognize that it's for the greater good.


As a senior, how are you recognizing or celebrating the end of high school, even though things have been cancelled?

Brooke: I dressed up on May Day and had my house decorated. I had already purchased a prom dress, so I plan on wearing it to my schools “virtual prom”. My school may or may not have a graduation, depending on how the summer goes. We’ll see!


How has COVID-19 impacted your college search process?

Marta: Although I have been building my resume and challenging myself academically my entire high school career, looking ahead to my future, I hadn’t planned on formally starting my admissions search until the Spring of my Junior Year. While I had read the materials schools had sent me and taken standardized testing, my plan was to tour colleges during spring break and early summer, in hopes of finding a place that speaks to me. I think it’s generally just added another anxiety factor to the mix, now not only am I worried about what college I will get into, but whether or not I will be able to attend the college for in person instruction. Another added obstacle is standardized testing, I took the ACT in February and had been studying to improve my score. Although it is nice to have more time to study, it can be hard to stay motivated when your test has been cancelled three times. AP testing which started today also proved to be extremely difficult, I spent a lot of time studying and there seemed to be a technical issue when I tried to submit, which was frustrating. It seems like I’m not alone however, since a lot of students across the country have reported similar issues.

Alex: I think I'm very lucky in that I have gotten a lot of my campus tours out of the way. I'm the type of person who has been freaking out about college since seventh grade, so I pretty much have everything planned out in my brain and have visited the schools at the top of my list. I have had to cancel a few plans, I intended to visit some liberal arts colleges in the midwest over summer break but it seems like that won't be likely. I am pretty stressed about getting all my standardized tests up, however. I've taken the ACT once but definitely need to improve my score and was hoping to do so sometime this spring, which didn't pan out. Now there's so much uncertainty about when it will be safe to congregate in large groups again, so I'm afraid to register for a test that might just get cancelled. I'm pretty heavily considering applying Early Decision or through the Questbridge match program, which would both mean deadlines early on in the school year, so I'm hoping that I can get testing done in time.


Has COVID-19 changed your plans for the future (where you might attend college, what your plans are after graduation, etc.)?

Marta: They haven’t necessarily changed because I didn’t have formal plans decided. I still know that I want to attend college, potentially a selective university, but am still trying to figure out where and what to study. It has made me think more about what I value and am interested in. This experience has affirmed in my mind that I am a social person, who really enjoys writing and talking to other people. While I am still on the fence about what I want to major in, I think it is interesting to see when seemingly everything is taken away and different, what you still choose to do, that, in my opinion, has to be what you value. 

Alex: As of now COVID-19 hasn't changed my plans too much for the future. I still plan to study business and hope to attend a smaller school in the Midwest. However I am fearful, as I mentioned before, that COVID-19 related cancellations will make it harder for me to get my test scores up in time, and if I'm not able to improve my score that will definitely impact the schools I apply to in terms of selectiveness. It has also made me worry a bit about paying for college as well. I had been working a job for 20 hours a week prior to the outbreak of COVID, and I was hoping that I could use money earned over the summer to alleviate college application fees if I'm unable to get a waiver. Now that I am unable to work for the foreseeable future, I am a bit worried about how to pay for all the fees associated with applying for college.


Have you engaged with any colleges or universities since the break? If so, how have you interacted with them?

Marta: Yes, I have. I have still received and read letters and informational packets as well as watched some YouTube videos and taken virtual tours. However, studying for AP testing is my top priority now, so once those are over I plan to begin my search more in-depth. I really appreciated the focused effort that I can tell universities have been making to move the college search online, and make it more accessible during this crisis. 

Alex: I have interacted quite a bit with colleges since the break. A few weeks ago I attended a virtual info session for Washington University in St. Louis. I've attended info sessions at other schools, and this was quite similar, however there was a window where you could ask a question and several moderators from the admissions office were monitoring the window and answering questions. At an in-person info session I would probably be too nervous to ask a question, however this online format actually made me feel a lot more comfortable with doing so. I have also been working with a team of students at my school and our guidance counselor, Paul Breitbach, to organize some panels with college admissions officers. So far we have done one panel with Iowa colleges and one that has admissions officers from selective institutions. At these panels we've had moderators ask student-submitted questions to the admissions officers, which has been incredibly helpful! We've talked to the admissions officers a lot about how they will adjust their decisions process for students impacted by COVID-19 and it has definitely helped to alleviate a lot of my stress.


What are you worried or nervous about when it comes to starting college?

Brooke : I’m nervous about being away from home of course. The other thing I’m nervous about is just learning my resources around campus and adjusting to classes. But I’m super excited about being part of campus! I’m just focused on maintaining my footing before I jump in. I think college is so exciting in itself! I just cannot wait for the day when I move into a dorm and can finally start my college journey. 

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