Kids speak out

Jon Decker/The Laconia Daily Sun illustration

In 2020, the world changed with the advent of COVID-19. Economies around the world ground to a halt as populations quarantined to stave off the spread of a virus that, at the time, was poorly understood. While we’re used to hearing the stories of adults during this time, children are often left out of the conversation. The Laconia Daily Sun’s Voices project looks to bring young people into the conversation by letting students speak freely on their experience and perspectives of growing up and learning in a disrupted world. Voices will consist of articles, an event at The CAKE Theatre this spring, as well as the potential for one-on-one, in-depth interviews with students.

The Laconia Daily Sun met with Laconia Middle and High School students on Dec. 20. When asked about the beginning of their experience, there was a theme of optimism slowly shifting to a harsh realization that things were changing forever.

“At first it was ‘yay! Two-week break!’” one high school student recalled, “then it extended. And extended.”

When school comes home

Before the students and teachers knew it, what was supposed to be a temporary inconvenience and adjustment period grew into a new and unfamiliar routine. It became clear that educators were going to have to drastically change the way they taught, and not necessarily for the better, as student motivation quickly dropped.

“I feel like when we were first at home, we felt like not doing anything,” said another high schooler. “As time went on, we got used to it. Especially over a year.”

While some adapted as best they could to online learning, others experienced lethargy in waves throughout the year. 

“For me, not being motivated came and went in short periods,” said another student, blaming the stark contrast between home and school environments. “I think because we were at home, you have your bed, your phone, your TV. Home doesn’t have a working atmosphere.”

These distractions, and stress of being in the same place with the same small group of people all of the time, seemed to negatively affect students both academically and socially. 

For some, academic demands seemed to rubber band between too much and too little throughout the period of remote learning.

“We did nothing all day,” said one high schooler speaking on the early days of the shutdown. “We did no school work because the teachers didn’t know how to handle the situation. All we had to do was check in with each teacher during the week.” 

When there were actual assignments, some students were able to shirk traditional academic rules. 

“You could also cheat on tests at home,” said one student, “because you had tools like a computer.”

As time passed however, and educators got a better grasp on their new digital tools, the work came back in full force, and some students didn’t feel ready. 

“Some teachers gave too much work to where you’d have three or four assignments and you’re trying to get it done and it just keeps piling on,” said one student. “I felt stressed, we talked about it in chats, saying ‘I can't believe we have 10 assignments due by the end of the week.' I think the teachers that did that were trying to cope with not being able to teach and give the lessons they needed.”

“I taught remotely all last year,” said one high school teacher. “It was an extremely strange experience. You’d give somebody a lot of work to do over a few weeks, and most people didn’t do it. It was very difficult to motivate students through a screen.”

As a result, many students felt they failed to adapt, and as a result are behind where they would normally be. 

“I also believe a lot of kids have learned that because of this easier time, they've taken an academic hit and they don’t care as much as they used to,” said one student. “I feel like many people’s fires have been burned out, not just students and also teachers.”

For some students, the loss of school accounted for far more than access to education and friends. 

“There were a lot of kids that maybe depended on the school for clothes or food in their stomach everyday, somewhere warm to go to during the day in the winter, and COVID hit and they didn’t have that anymore,” said one high schooler.

Another classmate questioned the strength of the education system to bounce back from such catastrophic events and provide support to the most vulnerable groups of students. 

“How do they get back into normalcy?” the student asked. “Can we depend on it (the social safety net)?"

In addition to the academic challenges, students expressed the strain COVID placed on their social well-being. Despite being the most digitally literate and online generation of all time, many students found that they couldn’t replace real world interaction with social media and screens. 

“If you weren’t willing to break guidelines, you could lose friends,” one student stated. “I lost all my friends.” 

When asked why so many students lost connections with long time friends and peers, one student answered, “I think teens are ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ if you don’t see someone for a while, they’re just gone.”

“My dad had a stroke a few years ago, so I couldn't come into school because I was too scared to go to school and getting COVID,” said another high schooler. “My friends were all going to school at the time (during hybrid learning), so I didn’t really see them much at all. So it was really hard to see anyone anymore. It basically felt like everybody just forgot about me.”

Social media effect

Many Laconia Middle School students described a similar experience.

“You can’t see your friends, so you just text them or snap them or whatever, and it’s just not the same,” said one middle schooler, “so in a way it’s like, you feel like you’re losing friendships because you can’t have that connection when you’re hanging out with each other, or have fun because of COVID.”

Due to physical restrictions, a majority of students admitted to relying even more on social media during remote and hybrid learning periods, and for the most part saw it as a negative aspect of their routine.

“I don’t feel good about (social media) because I can't really talk to that person face to face and they can say stuff without seeing you and really hurt your feelings,” said one high school student. 

In addition to making bullying easier, students claimed that constant smartphone use made it even harder to focus and increased social divides. 

“I always feel like I could have been more productive doing something else instead of being on social media,” said one high schooler. 

“I disliked scrolling on social media platforms and seeing people breaking the rules that I was following,” said one student who works part time at a hospital. “Especially with COVID and the restrictions and watching other people disregard it has been really hard for me.”

At the same time, other students expressed social media’s positive role in combating loneliness during quarantine. “Sometimes it's the only way to communicate with people so instead of feeling alone, you can feel like there’s other people around you,” said a high school student.

Gaining the upper hand

Despite the difficulties and isolation, some students were able to start rallying themselves academically as time went on. 

“Some kids still blame it on COVID, ‘that’s why I'm like this,’ and we have to get over it,” said a high school student. “It’s our motivation. We need to get back up to be where we want to be instead of blaming it on other things.”

Others expressed personal growth during remote learning, namely in the areas of responsibility and organization. 

“I learned how to be more organized,” said one high schooler, “before I leaned on teachers to keep that structure. You had to keep organized yourself."

In addition to gaining more independence and organizational skills, some students used the extra time and isolation to improve themselves, connect with family, and help their communities.

“I personally grew a lot when it came to abilities,” said one student. “I learned sewing and made masks. I very much improved from that. I donated, and got my home town hero (award). For me that was a big step to the future especially for small businesses. I think a lot of people had time to think and space to create.”

Another student earned her EMT certification. 

“I’m just setting up so I have experience as I go into college and take the pre-med track and go to med school,” she said.

Other improvements may not have been as monumental, but still important to the students that made them.

“When I was a kid, I used to read a few books a week,” a high schooler said. “During COVID, I reconnected with my love of reading. Many people have shorter attention spans now because they're on their phone a lot during COVID, and now I feel like my attention span is a lot bigger because I sat down and read two books a week.”

As a result of this personal work ethic and in some cases new skills, many students were optimistic about the strength of their generation going forward into an uncertain future. 

“I think that our people who are graduating high school now are going to be a lot more hardworking, because we’ve all had jobs and worked through all this,” said one student.

COVID generation

Despite this newfound resolve, many high school students and middle schoolers expressed concern over the current and future socio-political climate of the country.

“I feel like it's not going to change that much. I feel like we’re gonna be dealing with the same problem in five years,” said one student, citing the disagreements regarding vaccination and other preventative measures. “I think we’re spending too much time debating something instead of solving something.”

“If you have a different thought than someone, or just don’t agree on something, I just feel like you just lose more people,” said one middle schooler as she discussed societal divisions. “You can’t have your own thoughts and it’s just dividing more people rather than bringing them together.”

When asked for an example, the student cited vaccination status. 

“If I get vaccinated, but some of my other friends' parents don’t want them to get vaccinated, then they can’t hang out with me, because their parents are not for it for their kid, and they think that I’m gonna influence them.”

Although students of this generation are coming of age in a time of extreme political division and a global pandemic, there were still optimists among the desk. 

"I think the generation of kids that are coming out of this are going to do really positive things in this world,” said one high school student. “I think it’s affected us a lot in ways that are kind of hard to understand. I think that we’ve seen what we dislike and we’re going to change it.”

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If you're interested in sharing your experience, contact Jon Decker at jon@laconiadailysun.com.

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