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The Class of 2023 talk about how COVID defined their high school experience

WNIJ talked with soon-to-be grads at three northern Illinois high schools about how the pandemic impacted their high school experience.
WNIJ talked with soon-to-be grads at three northern Illinois high schools about how the pandemic impacted their high school experience.

It’s graduation season for the Class of 2023. When they walk across the stage to get their diploma with family in the crowd, it’s not a moment they’ll take for granted. They saw their friends and siblings miss those moments. They were freshmen, just starting high school, when the pandemic hit.

Garrett Pertell and Ryan Dickinson are seniors at Amboy High School. When they think back to the spring of 2020 — freshman year — they think about baseball practice. The season had barely started. They learned that this would be their last practice before a two-week break because of COVID.

Pertell says, honestly, everyone was pretty thrilled about the break.

“I can just remember everybody talking about it, so excited that we’d have two weeks off, and then come back,” he said. “But then, yeah, we never came back.”

He’s not alone. Maddux Shockey, the senior class president at Freeport High School, remembers that funny feeling.

“The excitement slowly turned into a loss of hope," said Shockey, "and then almost dread."

In some ways for them it feels like yesterday. But it also kinda feels like 10 years ago. Students like Somonauk senior Whitney Andrews went from finding their footing in high school to remote learning overnight; with her brothers playing music in the other room while she tried to focus in on a Zoom class.

“I had my audio on and everyone just heard the music because I was called on to answer," said Andrews. "I was so embarrassed."

They all spent time learning remotely. For all four seniors, the most difficult part of that first spring at home was mustering the motivation to even try, because schools instituted a “hold harmless” where grades couldn’t go down.

Maddux remembers silent classes, his friends all with their cameras off while the teacher put up a PowerPoint presentation.

“I tried to be a camera-on guy, but I didn't have my days where I was like, ‘man, I really don't want to do this today,’” he said. “But I knew that by participating I'd help out the other people in my class, because then it would make it a little less dreadful for them.”

It felt like almost everyone was at least on their phone or PlayStation. They were also trying to stay connected with friends.

Mental health was and is a struggle for a lot of teenagers. All of the seniors said they thought their schools did a decent job making support staff and resources available. Dickinson said at Amboy they even tried to get creative to check in with students.

“Our guidance counselor at the time had Snapchat," he said, "and he would stay in touch with people."

They all went back in-person at some point their sophomore year, first in a hybrid schedule, then totally. They’ve been in-person for the better part of two years now. It feels normal. But Dickinson says he still feels the impact of the pandemic with his academics.

“I feel it every day in math," said Dickinson. "It was hard not having like that teacher right there with you. I was kind of lazy. I would just like, take a picture and ask someone for answers instead of trying to learn it. So, today, I struggle in math more because of that."

Overall, they agreed that COVID absolutely defined the first half of their high school experience. Maddux said the second half has been about picking up the pieces and reclaiming it.

“The thing that has been most difficult for me has been restoring those relationships I lost over the pandemic,” he said. “I changed during the pandemic, that stuff really weighed on me. Finding out who I was outside of my own house and bedroom was the biggest challenge for me.”

Dickinson has tried hard to fix some of the not-so-great academic habits he picked up learning from home.

“This year, I took classes I really enjoyed," he said. "I think it's more of an accomplishment that I finally found it and turned into a much more responsible student."

But, Pertell says, it does feel like there’s still a hole in their experience. There’s a piece missing.

“I think we kind of lost out on some fundamental skills or maybe just learning in general," he said, "and there might not be any time or way to really make that up."

Andrews says, at this point, she’s thankful the pandemic didn’t hit her junior or senior year.

“I think about the times I had the past couple years and that's what I'm excited about,” she said. “I still got to go to prom. I still get a regular graduation and all of that.”

She had friends and cousins who missed out on the celebrations of high school like prom and graduation. But they’re grateful they'll get to hug their friends and teachers and say goodbye on their terms.

Shockey, at Freeport, says he’s ready to move on to the next chapter. But it’s worth reflecting one more time on the unique challenges the Class of ‘23 faced.

“Unless you were in it with us,” he said. “You don't really understand how much of a mental health toll it actually took, and then how much strength and perseverance it took to stay on top of it to get to where we are today -- graduating.”

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.