Student Melody Dao created the "Study Break" podcast during the pandemic as she was reassessing what was important to her.
By her sophomore year, Melody Dao was already enrolled in three AP classes at her high school in Los Angeles County. She expected the challenges ahead to largely be academic.
“Before the pandemic,” she said, “I thought I had everything planned out. Everything was going to go smoothly.”
Her senior year marked the first time Dao attended class in person since she was a sophomore in March 2020. She described her junior year, spent entirely online, as unmotivating and numbing. Everything seemed overwhelming. She found she couldn’t conjure the same amount of effort she did pre-pandemic to a classroom on Zoom, something we now know is a common experience among students.
“Before the pandemic, I was kind of focusing. Then during the pandemic and distance learning, I feel like I just kind of lost it a bit,” said Azalia Mariscal, a junior at Richmond High School in Richmond, California. Mariscal took care of her younger siblings during the school day, helping them focus on their classes and occasionally cooking their meals. She felt there was a lot more to do than just school — which made finding the motivation to pay attention in class and do school work difficult online. Teens took on caregiving roles for their families at a time when the balancing of paid and domestic labor forced women out of the workforce at a disproportionate rate: Estimates in May 2021 placed the figure at 400,000 more U.S. women left than men.
Much of the coverage on Covid’s effects on adolescent mental health focuses on isolation from peers or a desire for normalcy. But for some students, not doing well on Zoom school interfered with self-identities they were deeply invested in.
"It was a hard realization to realize that I wasn't the student that I was before and I couldn't be as motivated as I was before,” said Ian Szeto, also a high school senior in Los Angeles County.
Even though his junior year was online, Szeto found his courses were rigorous, eroding his confidence when he couldn’t meet expectations as he once did. With so much of his self esteem and identity based in school, he felt as though he’d lost who he thought he was.
“It just felt very frustrating and tiring,” said Szeto.
This sentiment seemed widespread amongst his classmates: Szeto recalled Zoom classes where, the moment class wrapped with a teacher’s dismissal, 15 or so students would disappear instantly — as though they’d been hovering over the “Leave” button. It wasn’t as though they had places to be, he said. They just couldn’t take being in class anymore.
“With everything happening outside of school, how could I focus on school?” asked Dao. “I learned that, yeah, school is not that serious. So why should I focus on it when I can focus on other things that matter more to me?”
That’s not to say Dao stopped attending school, or even that she stopped working hard in her classes. But she de-centered school and grades from her priorities focusing instead on her family, her friends, her mental health and her dedication to helping others outside of school.
This self-first approach to high school was novel for many of these high school students. Instead of forcing themselves into being or becoming straight-A students, they began thinking about how school could best serve them. They decided to make time for themselves and prioritize what they care about. Many decided to safeguard their mental health.
In continuation of last year’s upward trend of voluntary resignations, a record 4.5 million adults quit their jobs in November 2021, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. While some economists complain that “The Great Resignation” or “The Big Quit” has been largely misunderstood by the media and general public for its failure to take into account retirement and job-swapping rates, many find it undeniable that Covid has influenced the employment conditions workers desire and demand from their employers.
Unlike adults, in most states, teens can’t really just quit school. But during the pandemic, teens also experienced a mindset shift as to the best conditions that would facilitate their learning, the ways they prefer to learn, and the role school should play in their lives.
These students said the pandemic caused them to approach school differently than they did as freshmen or sophomores in March 2020. Though attitude changes and re-prioritizations are par for the course in adolescence, these teens’ experiences are larger than that: they can draw direct lines from their time spent in isolation, in online classrooms, in the ongoing fear they or their loved ones could become sick — to the students they are now, and to what they value most.
One of the biggest realizations these teens expressed was that school — and by extension, college — wasn’t everything. The speed with which Covid razed once normal, taken-for-granted routines made the future even less predictable. Many students looked inward and asked themselves what they wanted, rather than what was expected of them.
Szeto shared that many of his classmates reconsidered their planned majors — wanting to pursue subjects they were actually passionate about — and reconsidered college itself. Some debated whether a high tuition would be worth a university experience that could be largely online. Others reconsidered life plans, given the odds that they would have to work remotely or that another life-altering event could happen. Why not spend your time on this earth doing what you want?
During shelter-in-place, many students — like their adult counterparts — developed hobbies, reignited passions or aligned priorities. Some students went so far as to realize that the untold amounts of effort they spent striving for an ‘A’ in a subject they weren’t passionate about might not be as worthy a use of their time. A lower grade and more time to work on their own extracurricular projects provided a balance that felt more true.
“Now that there's been this pandemic, it's given me more opportunity to reflect. And it's made me come to the realization that I want to prioritize my interests,” said Sirihaasa Nallamothu, a high school junior in Normal, Illinois.
Nallamothu learned new coding languages, as did Danielle Ma, a high school senior in Los Angeles County. Szeto spent more time sewing — he designed, cut and stitched the backpack he now wears to school. He feels a rush of pride when classmates compliment him and ask where it’s from. Dao created a podcast in which she interviews teens around the world about their experiences, differences and common ground.
“I know a couple of students that have reprioritized their mental health over the pandemic,” said Nallamothu. She says these students changed track from courses solely designed to optimize college admittance to ones that better suit who they are.
“They're taking courses that make them happy or make them feel challenged while prioritizing their mental health, which is really cool,” said Nallamothu. “College isn't everything. You pursue your interests and you prioritize your mental health and then you'll have a pretty good outlook on life.”
HOW TO REFORM SCHOOL
This new approach to school largely seems to have occurred on an individual level: each student discovering what they want, the state of their mental health, and how to protect both interests in their decisions regarding class choice, college applications and how much studying to do. But students also want to see this emphasis on mental health occurring school-wide, even education system-wide, in the midst of a pandemic.
“People have lost family members, they've lost friends, they've lost other important figures in their life. And it's just really hard to go through all of that, but then receive a notification on your phone saying, ‘Your teacher posted a new math assignment. It's due tonight at 11:59 p.m.’,” said Dao.
Students don’t think their teachers are insensitive to what they’re going through. All of the students I spoke with expressed gratitude for their teachers, who were right there alongside them on Zoom. But based on her experiences and her podcast’s conversations, Dao wants to see greater sensitivity from schools. She wants there to be better structural support for mental health. She wants students to have a chance to share what they need and desire. And she wants schools to actively listen.
Dao appreciates the mental health resources her own school shares and its peer counseling program. While many things are easier in person, she posited that her peers seem less open about their mental health than they were online. Face-to-face, there’s no anonymity and there’s increased vulnerability compared with posting from a social media handle. So peer counseling programs allow students to feel supported in sharing again. The ability to talk with someone in one's own year, someone who also knows what it’s like to be a student right now — and then to resultantly feel heard, supported and validated, is crucial, she said.
Szeto pointed out that some students may be skeptical about using a school resource.
“It's almost like, ‘Oh, you put us through this, how could you know what we're going through?’” he said.
Dao suggested schools could go beyond more formal resources and services to make adaptations that better serve students’ mental health. Some of Nallamothu’s teachers are encouraging more talking in class in general, allowing chatting between topics to go on for longer than she remembers pre-pandemic. Beyond the benefit of getting to socialize with peers again, she noticed the value of getting to talk out concepts, being directly asked for her thoughts or turning around and asking the person behind her a question. She felt more engaged. She wasn’t just speaking at her computer to rectangular video feeds of her classmates. School felt more real in person.
“You feel like you're in a bigger and more connected community that way,” she said. “It's the people that make it valuable.”
While Dao finds it easier to focus in person than at home — she can less easily be distracted by her phone, her family or her neighbor’s dog — she thinks the rapid adjustment makes paying attention still difficult, if in a different way. She likes that some of her teachers are providing opportunities for students to take breaks. She’s heard of students being allowed to go for a quick walk around the building and then return to class, a two-minute reset that she thinks makes a real difference for concentration.
Mariscal felt grateful to be able to leave her house when classes went back in person, but that feeling was tempered by her fear of catching Covid. Band class helps distract from that fear: she plays tuba and trombone, and couldn’t really play during online learning. She appreciates the focus required to use the specific amount of air needed to hit each note. “It's that one thing that makes me feel better,” she said.
Dao wants teachers and administrators system-wide to allow students to get in touch with their emotions and personal identities, to allow students to talk about what they’re going through and what they need. Teachers should listen when students say they need more time for homework, for instance: they could correspondingly push out due dates or even assign less work.
Ma would like to see less busy work — she can tell the difference between an assignment that challenges her and one that seems only assigned for the sake of assigning. She said her class has been more “bold” in asking for less of that busy work, as well as in asking for extended time for work or test preparation, compared with pre-pandemic school. She feels she and many of her classmates have acquired agency and self-efficacy skills that will benefit them in the future — even if that future includes online learning.
“I don't want to go to online school again. But if it's for health reasons, it would be OK. I just have to work harder to stay focused,” said Ma.
This agency is presently being utilized by students nationwide who have staged protests and walk-outs amidst the omicron surge to demand better Covid protections, testing and online schooling options. To only hear students’ preferences for in-person learning and to omit the context of the pandemic is disingenuous. The pandemic made even more visible systemic inequities that made safety and school most challenging for the families who needed the most help — the conditions that often worsen mental health in the first place. Students are pushing both for interesting classes and a feeling of safety at school in the ways they can.
TIME BETTER SPENT IN CLASS
When filling out her college applications, Ma asked herself why she goes to school at all. She thought about classes where the teacher is engaging, ones where the discussions are fun. In her English class, not only are her readings insightful, but she feels there’s a depth to them. She learns more from each re-reading, then more out of her teacher’s analysis, then even more from class discussions.
The discussions weren’t like that on Zoom. In person, students are energetic. They build off each other. They’re funny. Ma enjoys the chance to laugh, to listen to new points of view, to participate herself. She appreciates when her English class’ readings deal with taboo topics, are open to interpretation and reflect non-Eurocentric worldviews. She’d like to see more of that. Her class read a work by Amy Tan, and Ma appreciated the chance to personally relate to the content, to connect with the narrator and to be able to draw from her own life in her analysis.
Ma realized she keeps going to class not just for her English teacher or fellow classmates, but because she actually likes the subject itself. Beyond grades, she feels challenged to uncover meanings and learn how to improve her own writing. The transfer from passively wanting good grades to actively wanting to learn is new, she said.
Moving from online to in-person laboratory experiments helped Nallamothu understand why she was learning chemistry, instead of just to achieve a good grade. Real-world applications allow students to see the value of learning beyond test scores, she said. She praised recent decisions by some universities to drop SAT or ACT score requirements for admissions and by the CollegeBoard to nix SAT subject tests. She sees this as a sign that more higher-ups are realizing that understanding is far deeper than test scores: it’s about personal mastery and application.
Nallamothu conceived her own way of applying what she was learning. After reading her AP U.S. History textbook’s sole paragraph on the 1918 influenza, she realized she didn’t want her town’s experience from this pandemic to be similarly truncated and forgotten. So she organized the 20-Year Project, a community time capsule.
Community-based efforts by her generation give Nallamothu the hope she needs to go to school and try her best in an increasingly unpredictable world. She characterizes Gen Z as trying its best to remedy its unjust inheritances, ones that stretch back far before the pandemic.
"Gen Z-ers have been exposed to so much around them. They've been exposed to political polarization, social movements, the pandemic, climate change. And it feels like we're really going to make a difference. I've seen so many cool people working in my community and on social media, working to make a change. So I think we'll be in pretty good hands,” said Nallamothu.
Shocking events that disrupt any idea of normalcy are now normal to this generation, Szeto argues. That means many have realized that they can’t plan for their lives using a baseline assumption that the former status quo will return, or even that the current status quo will continue.
“I don't really know if normalcy exists anymore, and I think we're all just trying to create a new normal in a way,” said Szeto. “But I don't really know if people can really go back to what they had before. We just went through too much for it, for us to just go back and forget everything that happened.”
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