Right Now, Being a High School Senior in the Bay Area Is a Waiting Game

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Malia Johnson at her home in Pittsburg, California on March 24, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Malia Johnson’s senior year at Fremont High School in East Oakland was going according to plan. She got accepted to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, applied for scholarships and lined up a paid internship to help pay for college costs this fall. Then, the novel coronavirus outbreak hit and her school began experimenting with online distance learning.

At Fremont High School, the graduation rate hovers at just above 60% — well below the state average. Johnson is trying to buck that statistic.

“Me and my classmates have worked really hard to make sure that we can graduate on time. And now it's like out of our hands whether or not we do," Johnson said.

Forum: High Schoolers Shelter in Place

Johnson is one of many high school seniors across the state wondering if they will secure the final credits needed for graduation — or whether they will even graduate at all this summer. At UC and CSU schools, a final high school transcript and date of graduation are needed not only for admission, but also for financial aid and housing assistance.

The state’s chief deputy superintendent of public instruction, Stephanie Gregson, said the state is working with its higher education institutions to ensure a smooth transition for seniors whose graduation and final transcripts may be delayed because of the coronavirus.

Fremont High School in Oakland on March 24, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Many colleges require admitted students to submit final high school transcripts for enrollment. At Cal Poly, where Johnson was admitted and hopes to study architecture and engineering, transcripts are due by July 15 along with proof that seniors have maintained a 3.0 GPA. For the UCs, the deadline is July 1.

The University of California said in a statement it understands students and high schools are worried about potential impacts of COVID-19 on admissions and financial aid. UC is discussing accommodations for incoming and prospective students “should this current high school term and A-G requirement fulfillment be impacted by responses to the pandemic.”

“We are working with our UCs, our CSUs, our community colleges to ensure there is no harm done for students who are involved in distance learning in terms of college admission,” Gregson said. But there are many details to work out, and for now, students like Johnson and their families remain in the dark.

“I don't even know how that's going to affect colleges and things like that. So it's kind of frustrating,” said Johnson. “I’m a planner and when things come at me out of nowhere, I tend to panic."

Fremont High School teacher Maya Brodkey has known Johnson since ninth grade. “She’s very focused on her goals and she’s overcome a lot of challenges in her life that other students haven’t had,” said Brodney. “The emotional impact of this situation on her is harder, I would think, because she has such a clear vision for her future, and it’s so unclear what this situation will mean right now.”

Johnson's family moved to Pittsburg last year, and although they live across the street from Pittsburg High School, she insisted on commuting back to Oakland to keep attending Fremont High School. “It’s not bad. I grab a seat on BART and use the time to do my homework," she said.

It might even help that she can skip the commute for now. Johnson said she thinks she can handle digital distance learning since she has a computer at home, but it will be hard for many of her classmates.

“My friend has no internet, she can only do work on her phone,” said Johnson. “I have a psychology class I need for graduation at Laney College that is dual enrollment. They expect us to continue online now. That will be hard for my friend.”

Johnson predicts the Oakland Unified School District will try to make up for lost learning time over the summer, which is something the district has yet to address. But that could pose a problem for students trying to save for college.

“I had plans to do an internship with a company I interned with last year," said Johnson, who worked for LCA Architects. "If I have to go to summer school that probably can't happen. That was my source of money for college because I do get paid for that.”

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At Fremont High, teacher Brodkey says her biggest worry right now is that the financial impact on her students’ families could roll over and stymie college plans. When Brodkey checked in with her students this week, she learned many of her families have already lost jobs.

”We have a lot of kids who are intending to be first-generation college students and that depends on the financial stability of their family," said Brodkey. "Their older siblings didn’t go to college, they worked to support the family. Now their younger siblings who are trying to be the first to go to college are going to be trying to find work to support the family instead.”

Over half of Fremont High’s students are English learners.

“My students are already under-resourced and underprivileged,” said Brodkey. “This is just going to be such a further setback for them.”

Johnson says she's staying focused on school and remaining in touch with teachers, in hopes of staying on track to graduate. She's thankful for one particular classmate who shares the same schedule of courses. "I’m just trying to talk to my friend — she’s the calm one and she tells me not to stress.”