COVID Continues to Upend High School Academics and Traditions

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Twelve months into the pandemic, another graduating class is facing uncertainty and missing out on important rites of passage.

In March 2020, when COVID-19 closed schools, derailed proms and upended graduations, the Class of 2021 had reason to hope that their senior year would be different. Now, 12 months into the pandemic, no one is certain of anything. “I don’t think anyone had any idea it would last this long,” says Alice Tran, a senior at West Chester’s East High School.

This past summer, Tran was optimistic. Then her planned study abroad was canceled and the district decided to go completely virtual. At Lower Merion High School, Mia Schwartzberg said goodbye to her friends at the end of junior year, not really grasping the long-term implications. “Once my summer wasn’t normal, I knew [school] would be different,” she says.

At first, Schwartzberg enjoyed the mix of in-person and virtual classes. Then infection rates rose, and school closed. “I missed the human interaction,” says Schwartzberg, adding that she did enjoy longer breaks and fewer classes.

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Tran is adapting to the new normal—even in the face of senioritis. “You have to adjust your work ethic and how you make time for school,” she says. “I’ve been reaching out to friends, and we help each other stay motivated.”

The college application process has changed, as well. Tierney Pegg of Sacred Heart Academy in Bryn Mawr was counting on her rowing skills for scholarships. “But I started crew my sophomore year, so I only had one season to use to apply to college,” she says.

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For Schwartzberg, there were some plus sides to staying home and working on applications. “If I’d gone to [summer] camp, I would’ve been consumed with college applications at the beginning of senior year,” she says. “But I was able to finish most by the end of September, which was a huge relief.”

The pandemic has altered high school extracurriculars, with many districts canceling sports seasons and clubs operating in a dramatically different fashion. The week schools closed, Pegg was preparing for a play. “My school was talking about the possibility [of a production],” she says. “But it’s still very uncertain.”

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Tran is a part of East’s academic team, which meets online. For Lower Merion’s yearbook club, it’s been a “pretty easy switch” to virtual for Schwartzberg, since most of what they do is online anyway. But it has been difficult to finish the book, a majority of which is based on in-school pictures. As student government president, Schwartzberg is struggling to plan virtual events. “It’s harder to get the word out,” she says.

For Pegg, it feels like a lost year. “I don’t know if I’m going to have my senior prom,” she says. “Going to football games, going out and doing stuff with my friends … It’s just different.”

Even so, Pegg is grateful for all the time she’s been able to spend with family. “It made me realize how much I love them,” she says.

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