by Dr. Sharon Kunde
I sometimes refer to an event that happened “before the pandemic” and then correct myself: what I mean is “before the lockdown.” Even as our social and work lives have started to return to pre-pandemic norms, the pandemic is not over for any of us. But it’s particularly not over for students, and its persistence has different impacts on students of different ages.
When my school returned to fully in-person learning in the fall of 2021, I felt incredibly grateful to be back, moved almost to tears at the first orientation, the first choir concert, the first school dance. I felt especially relieved to teach my two tenth grade sections in person. When they were in ninth grade, the lockdown had seemed to hit them particularly hard, with many sliding into isolation, rarely turning on their cameras or turning in work. Now, I thought, they’d be able to learn properly, through discussions and activities. We would turn the pages of books together. We’d annotate and argue and perform skits and read our writing, and we’d laugh and be happy.
And for a while, that’s what happened. But as the 2021 – 2022 academic year wore on, it was clear that things were not returning to normal. There were extreme cases, of course – students who couldn’t sustain attention, or who hadn’t grown out of immaturity, or whose emotional growth had been so deeply disrupted by the lockdown that traditional learning no longer served them. But even beyond these extreme cases, I could see there were problems across the board, even for the students who were by most external measures doing well. It was a collection of vague symptoms: a tunnel vision, a lingering and persistent withdrawal, a cluelessness, an inability to contextualize their schoolwork.
It is my untested hypothesis that the students who were in eighth grade when the lockdown started and who spent a significant portion of their ninth-grade year online were impacted in a manner distinct from older or younger classmates. Missing ninth grade delayed this group’s cognitive and social-emotional development as it did for every age group, but for them it also took away something even more profound: the chance to figure high school out. It’s not a particularly technical term, and I’m hard-pressed to describe exactly what it involves, but it’s something about learning how to join clubs and sports, seeing other students gain experience and leadership skills as they move up through the years, learning how to navigate graduation requirements, trying out new friendships, new tastes, new attitudes.
Academic year 2021-2022, this class’s tenth grade year, was centered on repairing the major damage of the year of separation. By the end of the year, these students may have just started to learn how to learn and how to have high school friendships, but in my experience they were not able to come to grips with—another highly technical term—the “systems” of high school during that year. In AY 2022-2023, as eleventh graders, these students are just starting to figure high school out. And now they have only one semester before they start jumping the hurdles involved with moving on to the next stage.
The takeaway, I believe, is that educators, administrators, employers, and admissions officers should understand that many students in the class of 2024 need to be taught and evaluated in unique ways. The lockdown phase of the pandemic may seem to be far away in the rearview mirror, but for these students it is not. They’re still coping with its effects in a particularly acute way, still only starting to uncover in themselves the more independent learners and more confident individuals eleventh graders typically become.
I remember my junior year vividly. I started to dress differently, I made conscious departures from my parents’ belief systems, I actively chose my friends and began to crave spending time with them. I was able to come into my own because I’d been able to spend my freshman and sophomore year scoping things out, figuring out how things worked, observing the narrative arc of a four-year high school career. The class of 2024 is having its freshman, sophomore, and junior year all at once. We have to do everything we can to understand their challenges and support them as they overcome these challenges on a timeline that probably won’t look normal.
Dr. Sharon Kunde is an educator, scholar, and writer. Her current book project is titled “Natural Reading”: Race, Place, and Literary Practice in the United States from Thoreau to Ransom; an article drawn from this material appeared in Twentieth-Century Literature. Her poetry has appeared in The Colorado Review, Salt Front, and The Spoon River Review, among others. She teaches 8th and 9th grade at the Lycee International de Los Angeles and blogs about hiking in the California backcountry at https://throughhike.wordpress.com/.