As this spring’s high school seniors gear up for graduation, there’s a silver lining worth noting: The class of 2021 may be better prepared to take hold of their future than the classes before them.
Prior to the pandemic, transitioning from high school to college or career may have marked the first major life change for most teens. But pandemic seniors faced massive disruptions, disappointment and turmoil this past year, and as a result, could be uniquely strengthened for what lies ahead.
Online-schooling shoved students out of familiar classroom settings straight into independent, self-directed learning. Students had to take full responsibility for their education, making choices about attendance, motivation, engagement and how to limit distractions.
They also gained invaluable experience being resourceful when they didn’t know how to proceed. “We couldn’t stop by and see teachers for help, so we had to get comfortable reaching out through email, but also fending for ourselves if we didn’t hear back,” a senior in Los Angeles told us.
“We couldn’t stop by and see teachers for help, so we had to get comfortable reaching out through email, but also fending for ourselves if we didn’t hear back.”Los Angeles high school senior
That left students powering through learning challenges by texting classmates for help, forming Zoom study groups and capitalizing on free internet resources to help clarify difficult material. And while it may have been a rocky path to academic autonomy, the lessons learned will be particularly valuable for those heading to college, where attendance isn’t often tracked, professors are typically only available during office hours or via email and students rely heavily on teaching assistants and one another for support.
This batch of pandemic seniors was also forced to see the value of extracurriculars. For many students, after-school activities are the highlight of the day; a happy place where stress is pushed aside to make space for fun. It’s possible they didn’t realize just how important these activities were until they abruptly ended.
For some, there was simply no substitute for such in-person experiences. A cross-country runner told us that working out alone, without teammates, removed the thrill of the sport: “It began to feel like a chore, and it didn’t take long for me to fall out of a routine and stop altogether.”
On the plus side, students who felt an aching void this last year may be inspired to actively seek out clubs, teams or other community programming going forward, perhaps even in entirely unfamiliar areas. Some have already started: One student told us she had picked up painting and some of her friends had started skateboarding. “These were things we never would have tried if we were busy with our normal routines. It was nice to start something having zero expectations.”
Whether an activity is familiar or not, engagement in any type of group experience will be a powerful remedy for the loneliness felt during pandemic lockdowns. Students may find that attending regular in-person meetings with a consistent group will help them gain confidence again in social settings. And, for those who go away to college, groups may reduce feelings of homesickness after a year spent in very close contact with their immediate families.
This year’s seniors also learned important money-management skills and how to quickly distinguish their essential needs from their wants. Massive workplace disruptions during the pandemic caused many families to tighten budgets, pushing some students to take on part- or full-time work to help with expenses.
Confronting financial pressures during high school may ultimately leave students better prepared to manage their resources in the future: Money is the top stressor for a majority of adults, and, according to the National College Health Assessment, is the second leading cause of significant stress for college students.
A student in Connecticut told us, “I talked to my parents more this year just because they were always around, and money came up a lot because they know people who lost jobs. It was the first time we really hashed out who was going to pay for what after high school. It wasn’t a fun conversation, but I’m glad we had it.”
Additionally, the pandemic raised our national health IQ, well beyond the benefits of proper hand-washing and the avoidance of high-touch surfaces. In the past, young adults often refrained from seeking health care simply because they had little experience scheduling appointments or dealing with insurance paperwork. With the pandemic conversion to telehealth, many teens initially felt more confident than their parents or guardians navigating the online health portals. This allowed them to naturally assume more responsibility.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of the pandemic is the increased discussion around mental health. Many students engaged in honest and vulnerable conversations about their feelings with friends and family for the first time. Several told us they were now having frank discussions about what they were going through and had stopped joking about anxiety and depression, because “we’re all having a hard time.”
The advent of easily accessible mental telehealth counseling may be a game changer for students going forward. Hopefully, scheduling and meeting online with a provider in the privacy of one’s bedroom without the need for transportation will make it less intimidating and logistically easier for students to receive help for mental health concerns, both in high school and college.
The pandemic flipped life upside down for students everywhere, but we believe this pandemic-powered senior class developed an incredible skill set that may ultimately serve them well moving forward.
Dr. Jill Grimes, M.D., FAAFP, is a family physician, clinical instructor for UMass Medical School and author of “The Ultimate College Student Health Handbook.” Jill Henry, M.A., is a veteran high school teacher, award-winning coach and co-author of “The Greatest College Health Guide You Never Knew You Needed.”
This story about pandemic high school seniors was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.