The COVID Generation: Rochester seniors reflect on high school in the shadow of a global pandemic
Emergencies and damage control have bookended their high school experience. Their story has been one of both adversity and growth.
ROCHESTER — For most students in Rochester, Friday the 13th became the last day of normalcy at school before their world turned upside down. That weekend in March 2020 became a line of delineation, marking the COVID-19 pandemic’s transition from being something in the news to something affecting their daily lives.
Two days later, on Sunday, March 15, Rochester Public Schools announced the district would be taking an additional week and a half off, stretching out the spring break everyone was getting ready for anyway. As infamous as it may seem now, nobody knew then that it actually would be a much longer time before middle and high school students would get to return to their classrooms.
This year’s graduating seniors were high school freshmen the spring the pandemic started. That in and of itself gave them a unique high school experience. But on top of that, their senior year experienced a different kind of emergency when the district had to shut down its virtual networks for a prolonged period due to a cyberattack.
Now as they’re ready to graduate, those students have a unique perspective on the time of life often romanticized as the transition from childhood to adulthood. Emergencies and damage control have bookended their high school experience. Their story has been one of both adversity and growth.
They’re the COVID generation.
“We’re a much more resilient generation because of it. We’re a much more adaptable generation because of it,” Mayo High School senior William Laudon said. “The lessons I learned from the pandemic are lessons greater than I think I’d ever learn in any classroom.”
The great upheaval known by a myriad of names — Rona, COVID, the pandemic, 2020, the plague — affected students across the board. Seniors that year had to graduate in drive-through commencement ceremonies. First-graders introduced their teachers to their household pets over Google Meets. It affected their academic lives and their social lives. Sporting events, proms , mental health: Nothing was left untouched.
Although those early days in mid-March might be firmly implanted in the minds of this year’s seniors, there were plenty of other important and memorable dates that followed, creating a patchwork of decisions and milestones.
It all happened incrementally. At the outset, the district announced it was taking two weeks off to let the situation get under control, starting March 18, which was a Wednesday. The school district was still going to host in-person classes Monday and Tuesday, but they were optional.
“I’m glad I did show up those two days because that was the last time I was physically in school for over a year,” Laudon said. “It was a very surreal feeling because no one was there; we didn’t really know anything. There were still just a lot of uncertainties.”
But when that period came to a close, the district announced students would be finishing the rest of the year online. Over the course of the summer, it became a guessing game whether students would start the next school year in person or not.
A new year begins
Ultimately, the school district announced that elementary students would begin the school year in a hybrid format — splitting each week between days in person and days online — while secondary students would remain in distance learning.
Once the 2020-21 school year began , it turned into a haze for many of this year's seniors looking back.
“I had no certainty of what to expect,” Mayo High School senior Marc Zoghby said. “It just meant taking things day by day.”
“It was day by day, rumor by rumor,” John Marshall High School senior Margaret Drucker said.
“The pandemic just kind of feels like a blur because every day just kind of felt the same,” Laudon said.
“It was a time of hope, uncertainty, and waiting to see,” Century High School senior David Sohn said.
At the same time, there were moments that shone through the dreariness of the situation. Sohn described the period of distance learning as a time when he became especially close to his teammates in tennis. If someone got COVID, they wouldn’t be able to play for a period of time. Considering the team didn’t have a very deep bench, they needed everyone to stay eligible, he said. The situation banded them together because of the heightened sense of responsibility.
Drucker remembers the process of working on John Marshall’s annual fundraiser, JM Gives, during the pandemic. The school couldn’t do any in-person fundraising like they normally would. No bake sales. No pep rallies. Nothing.
In spite of that, the school still managed to raise more than $25,000, more than doubling the $10,000 goal students had set for themselves.
“I was like, ‘How in the world did we do that?’” Drucker said.
Returning and Rebuilding
Rochester Public Schools’ secondary students finally were able to return to in-person learning on April 5, 2021 . During the end of the 2019-20 year, they spent 50 days in distance learning. During the 2020-21 school year, they spent 127 days in distance learning.
They got a taste of distance learning during their junior year as well, when the district sent students home for two weeks in January 2022 as a result of high COVID levels.
Ten more days — 187 in all.
The impact of the COVID era lasted well beyond the days of distance learning itself. Once students did return, they initially had to wear masks. Schools used QR codes in lunchrooms to keep track of contact tracing.
But, the return from distance learning wasn’t just about the logistics of avoiding COVID. It also became a process of rebuilding what was lost. That’s something that still affects them now during their senior year.
“Even today in class, we were reviewing for an AP bio test,” Sohn said. “Our teacher was talking about old topics. And we started talking about how we should have learned that during COVID, but it was foggy in our minds.”
Rebuilding what was lost is also something Zoghby had to do after he joined Science Olympiad during distance learning. It wasn’t something that translated well to a virtual setting, and by the time the club resumed in-person meetings, there were only three returning members.
What that meant was they had to relearn how to compete and learn in a traditional club setting. There was a lot of institutional knowledge they had to learn from scratch, not just in regard to the projects themselves but also with the organization and logistics of the group.
They scrambled and hustled and worked late nights. By the time Zoghby’s senior year came around, the club was showing its strength once again.
“What COVID did to that club was it completely destroyed the participation,” he said. “In a way, it was a complete rebuilding and restructuring of Science Olympiad. It really shows our growth from being completely online to having three returning members to going through a really disorganized period to coming back and placing third in state. ”
Learning like the '80s
In a turn of events that almost seems ludicrous, the same generation that was pushed online because of the pandemic during their freshman year was then pushed offline their senior year due to a cyberattack on the school district. Drucker joked that it was like returning to the 1980s.
Although the causes were very different, several seniors described the two experiences as almost opposite sides of the same coin.
Laudon said that although it technically affected seniors like him, it was a bigger deal for juniors who had to worry about missing tests and how it might affect their future prospects.
Even if it wasn’t as catastrophic as the pandemic, it added a final curveball in the seniors’ high school saga. In other words, each of their four years had some sort of disruption:
- Freshman year (2019-2020): COVID starts: Students spend the last two and a half months of the school year in distance learning.
- Sophomore year (2020-21): Students spend the majority of the school year in distance learning, eventually returning to their brick-and-mortar classrooms in April.
- Junior year (2021-22): Students return to distance learning for two weeks in January because of staffing shortages related to COVID.
- Senior year (2022-23): Starting April 6, a large-scale ransomware attack causes students in Rochester Public Schools to amend their learning methods.
“We joke about how the class of 2023 has never been normal,” Sohn said.
Remember when …
Although it’s now an era gone by, the days of COVID and distance learning are still relatively fresh in the minds of today’s seniors. So, how will they talk about it in years to come? Good or bad, how will they reminisce about their younger years around dinner tables or at future high school reunions?
Sohn says it’s important to remember that although everyone was navigating the same pandemic, the experience of any single person could never fully represent what it was like for a whole generation.
But even if that impact looked slightly different from person to person, it's something they all have in common. COVID came to define their high school years.
Sohn went on to say he’s become content about it all. As difficult as it was, he says he also saw how it brought out the good in people.
Drucker said her opinion of the experience has changed with time. When the pandemic hit, she was disappointed. Having older siblings, she wanted the kind of high school experience they had had. She was destined for a great run too. She made varsity soccer as a freshman and was working her way toward a seat on the student council, which she eventually claimed.
Now, as a senior, she’s glad she had the chance to go through it all. She says it taught her to be less selfish. It taught her to be more adaptable. She also said it’s hard to explain exactly how everything changed for her during that time.
What is clear is that the seniors of 2023 will always be intertwined with a historical moment that defined their education and their coming-of-age years overall.
“I definitely think it’ll be interesting once we all start having kids,” Drucker said about her class. “I think it’ll be so interesting when they come home from school and go, ‘Oh my gosh, mom! What was COVID?’ And I’ll be like, ‘Sit down; let me tell you.’”