On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Many students have been out of the classroom for more than a year. As local school districts are reopening schools to more and more students, families are weighing the pros and cons of their students returning to class.
How has the pandemic year affected local high school students? Classes and grades are one thing, but what about mounting responsibilities at home, or the psychological effects of not seeing their peers on a regular basis?
Today, we hear from high school students, as well as WAMU education reporter Debbie Truong, about how a year of COVID-19 has effected them.
Produced by Inés Rénique and Cydney Grannan
- Debbie Truong Education Reporter, WAMU; @debbietruong
- Ashauna Weston Student, Cesar Chavez Public Charter School
- Sydni Lette-Daffeh Student, Duke Ellington School of the Arts
- Christell Miranda Lopez Student, Bell Multicultural High School
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. It's been a year of empty lockers, hallways and cafeterias. Beyond the Zoom classes and spotty Wi-Fi many students have faced challenges affecting their studies, friendships and mental health, but you don't have to hear it from me. We're talking to students directly today. Joining me now is Debbie Truong, WAMU's Education Reporter. Debbie, thank you so much for joining us.
DEBBIE TRUONGThank you for having me.
NNAMDIDebbie, before we hear from our student guests, remind us what's the latest with schools in our area. It's my understanding that most school systems have returned to some form of in-person classes.
TRUONGYeah. That's correct, Kojo. Tens of thousands of students in the D.C. region are back in physical classrooms for at least partial in-person learning. The larger school systems in the region including Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland and the school systems in Fairfax, Loudoun and Arlington in Northern Virginia are providing some form of in-person instruction.
TRUONGIn D.C., D.C. public schools about 10,000 students have been receiving in-person instruction since early February. At the same time virtual learning is still very much a part of daily life. You know, some students are only going back in person half time or for part of the day. And then, of course, there are students, who have opted to stay virtual even as pandemic restrictions ease.
NNAMDIJust a few days ago, the CDC issued new guidelines for schools saying that three feet of distance between students is safe enough as opposed to the previous standard of six feet of distance. How did the CDC come to this new figure and what does this mean for schools?
TRUONGSo the CDC based that guidance on studies that showed three feet of distance between students with masking and other precautions is enough to keep classrooms safe. The CDC released these updated guidelines late last week and local school systems to my knowledge are still evaluating what that means for their individual plans.
TRUONGThat being said, this will likely mean that schools will be able to accommodate more students for in-person learning if they wish. Here in D.C. a handful of school communities have really pushed hard to make in-person learning available to more students, but space has been a huge issue. And so this guidance is likely to be a relief to many of those families. D.C. is expected to release updated guidance to schools later this week about reopening and is expected to take into account that new guidance from the CDC.
NNAMDIAs part of your reporting you've talked with a lot of students of families over the past year. Earlier this month, you published a story about the responsibilities many local students have had to take on due to pandemic. What did the students share with you?
TRUONGSure. So, you know, in the D.C. region as has been the case across the country the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on Black, Latino and low income families. You know, students obviously aren't exempt from that. And so I heard from many students who have had to take on additional obligations during the pandemic. They've had to -- excuse me, care for family members who've gotten sick with COVID-19. They've had to take on additional household responsibilities, run errands, cook meals, because they're at home all day. And then I've also heard from many students who've had to help younger siblings with distance learning while they themselves are trying to learn from home as well.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Christell Miranda Lopez, a junior at the Bell Multicultural High School. Christell, thank you for joining us.
CHRISTELL MIRANDA LOPEZThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Sydni Lette-Daffeh, a senior at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Sydni, thank you for joining us.
SYDNI LETTE-DAFFEHThank you for having me. I'm so glad to be here.
NNAMDIAnd Ashauna Weston is a senior at the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School. Ashauna, thank you for joining us.
ASHAUNA WESTONThank you for the opportunity.
NNAMDIChristell, I'll start with you. You started the pandemic as a sophomore in high school and now you're a junior. How has the past year been for you and how have your responsibilities at home changed since you started remote learning?
LOPEZSo to start with the pandemic was a little bit hard for me in the beginning. It was honestly a rollercoaster. Being connected in the computer was pretty hard. And, you know, I'm the type of person who would be procrastinating a lot. I would not be doing my work a lot, because of all of the stress that's happening hearing the news that many people are dying and the cases are growing, which pretty scared me a lot. And that had made me disfocus a lot in my work in the beginning. But later on more in the middle of the pandemic I was trying my best to focus, to do my work. I had many support of my teachers who told me to focus a lot that I got this, to stay strong, which actually helped me throughout the school year and online.
LOPEZAnd I tried my best, which I put a lot of effort in most of my work and I had seen that my grades in the beginning were pretty low. But there's an issue about the Wi-Fi for me with the connection, which makes me not have my grades go up. And most of my work got not turned in. And it's pretty hard to do stuff online for many people. I know that they have low Wi-Fi for sure. It's way different from being in school. So that was one struggle I had. And a responsibility at home I had to take care of my own sister when my mom and my sister had to go work. And I had to clean or cook something for the family when they come. So that was ...
NNAMDIThat whole procrastination thing went out the window, huh?
LOPEZYeah, kind of, I'm still working on it.
NNAMDIThat's understandable. Ashauna, you've also been doing remote learning for the past year. How has your school supported you and your classmates?
WESTONSo every day at around this time 12:00 to 12:30 we have a break, 11:35 to 12:35 our lunch break. And we have twelve o'clock to 12:30 we have a time where we can have fun with our teachers. We play games, watch movies and just enjoy time with the teachers, because we can't do it in person. So that's another support group we have. And like we have our teachers that they'll email us if we feel stressed. And I work and I have two other internships that I do. So that has put a lot of stress on me. So they like to communicate with me to make sure that I'm doing alright.
NNAMDIYou're being -- go ahead.
WESTONAnd also I've been working with Mikva Challenge D.C. So that's put a lot of more stress on me, because we've been trying to work on our youth budget so we can present it to the mayor of D.C. So we can implement ideas that we believe and feel that the youth of D.C. should have a voice.
NNAMDIIndeed. You have said that the silver lining of this pandemic is that you're able to do more extracurriculars and keep yourself busy. You just described a few of those working with Mikva Challenge. How busy is that keeping you?
WESTONSo every day I have my internship Monday, Tuesday and Thursday from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00. And I'm also in school from 10:00 to two o'clock. So I do school and my internship at the same time. And then I have my Mikva Challenge D.C. on Wednesdays from 3:00 to 5:00 and I also do my internships from Wednesdays 3:00 to 5:00, too. So at two meetings at once and I try to put attention and focus and input work any time. So I like to stay busy so I can keep myself preoccupied so I won't procrastinate.
NNAMDIAnd you're also working too.
WESTONAnd I also work.
NNAMDII was about to say. Tell us about that.
WESTONI work at Checker's by Hyattsville, Maryland. And I expressed to my boss that I can't work on Wednesdays, because I have my meetings 3:00 to 5:00. So I don't work on Wednesdays for them, but any other days I work.
NNAMDIYou got a long day. What time do you get home in the evening?
WESTONIt depends what time I get off work. So today I go into work at 4:00 and I get off at 9:00. So I'm usually -- I get off at 9:00. I'll be in the house by like ten o'clock.
NNAMDIPretty long days. Sydni, you go to an art school, which adds a unique set of challenges to school online. How was the adjustment for you?
LETTE-DAFFEHYeah, so like what everybody else was saying, it definitely has been a struggle for me. Going to an art school, I'm in school from 9:30 to 5:00 p.m. And I do dance at my school so we have to find a way to setup our camera so that our whole body is showing. We have to make sure that we can be graded accordingly, because we still are getting our grades for our arts classes as well as our academic classes. So I've definitely had to juggle new things within this pandemic being at home and doing dance from my house especially since my school has still stayed virtual up until now. So it definitely has been a struggle for me in just managing my time and being able to find a space to do what I get a grade for.
NNAMDIIn the minute or so we have left in this segment, Sydni, dancers kind of feed off of each other's energy. How does that work when you're doing it from home?
LETTE-DAFFEHYeah. It's been very difficult. We -- especially since we have a senior showcase coming up for my dance department and we've had to choreograph and play music and teach steps virtually. So it's been very difficult to keep myself and my peers motivated, but at the end we do have a grade for this so that's really what keeps us going at the end of the day.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with local high school students and Debbie Truong, WAMU's Education Reporter about the pandemic year and what it's meant for them. Students joining us are Christell Miranda Lopez, a junior at the Bell Multicultural High School. Sydni Lette-Daffeh is a senior at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. And Ashauna Weston is a senior at the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School. Here is Melissa in Alexandria, Virginia. Melissa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MELISSAHi, Kojo. I am calling, because I'm actually a preschool teacher and we teach three to five year olds. We closed last spring when the quarantine started, and we spent our summer trying to figure out a way that we could do school this fall. And we have been 100 percent outdoors since September. And it's been quite an adventure. We had to really pivot and do some things differently. But we've been able to be very successful with, you know, our kids being able to play together and to be outdoors and to do things that preschoolers should be able to do, which is socialize with one another and not sit at home in front of a screen.
NNAMDIWhat kind of outdoor facilities did you have especially during the cold months of the year?
MELISSAWell, we are a cooperative preschool that's been in Alexandria since 1942. So we're on a fairly big piece of property. And we utilize -- primarily we've utilized those Coleman canopy tents, you know, that don't have sides to them.
MELISSASo that would give us -- you know, like starting out in September it gave us shade when it was hot. And, you know, if it's raining, drizzling. The only time we've had to cancel is high wind or if, you know, the wind chill was in the 20s. But we really have been able to do -- I would count on, you know, one hand the number of days that we had to cancel.
MELISSAParents have been able to dress -- you know, they learned about how to dress appropriately. And one of the big issues in general in education and especially early childhood education is building resilience in children, and these kids have a lot of confidence. Things that they didn't think they'd be able to do, they've been able to do.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us. Debbie Truong, did you cover any schools that had been operating outdoors?
TRUONGYeah. So here in D.C. there has been a huge push from, you know, many teachers and parents for outdoor learning. This has been something that's been talked about for months and months and I think we're really starting to see traction especially by, you know, D.C. Public Schools and some of the charters in bringing more outdoor programming for students, who want in-person learning. But who may not yet be comfortable with going back inside a building.
NNAMDISydni, how did you cope with the rollercoaster of the past year and with the fact that your senior year would be forever marked by this moment?
LETTE-DAFFEHYeah. So it's been very difficult for me to adjust and realize that I won't have a conventional senior year, because of the pandemic. But it has given me some opportunity since I do go to art school. It's given me the opportunity to have a little bit of rest from what I had been doing, because I was going to school from 8:00 to 5:00 previously with outside rehearsals after. So it has given me a second to relax. It was definitely a transition from me.
LETTE-DAFFEHAnd, you know, not having -- maybe not having a prom or not having an in-person graduation, but I see definitely the bittersweet moments. It's also been a large part of that was applying to college and trying to balance virtual school and dance. So that was a large aspect of it. I didn't get the same things that I would have when I would have been going to school like teachers being able to talk about college applications or how simple it may have been to get recommendations.
LETTE-DAFFEHBut in general it has been different, but helpful in some ways. And also like bittersweet.
NNAMDIHere now is Daniel in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Daniel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANIELYes, Kojo, thank you for having me. I wanted to make a quick comment about the availability of online options to facilitate small group interactions that might not be available given COVID restrictions and physical restrictions in the classroom currently. I know I graduated as a senior in Wicomico High School in Salisbury, Maryland last year. We went virtual in March and then graduated virtually.
DANIELThen I came to school at Williams College up in Massachusetts and we had the opportunity to return to the classroom, but some of the small group interactions that I've grown so fond of over my time of being educated were unable to happen in the classroom like I said given the six foot restrictions and the masks. Whereas on a breakout room or some sort of online platform these are very achievable, so I don't know. I just think there is some value to online learning until we can be fully in the classroom traditionally as we were.
NNAMDIThank you for sharing that. Again, to you, Debbie Truong, have you talked with students who seem to feel that they're -- because they could not get closer together in the classroom that being in a virtual environment is not that bad?
TRUONGSure. Yeah. I would say generally speaking virtual learning does work for some students. There are some families, who want more opportunities for a high quality virtual instruction moving forward. Also, you know, going back in person obviously has its benefits. There are a lot of mental health benefits for student socialization, things like that. But I've also heard a common concern is that, you know, many teachers are having to teach a class in-person as well as a class that's logging on virtually at the same time and that divides the teacher's attention. And students have less time to participate and interface with the teacher. And so, yeah, I think moving forward people will sort of keep in mind that there are more opportunities virtually to maybe engage in a smaller setting.
NNAMDIAnd Christell, you've said the pandemic led you to grow a lot closer to your family. Tell us about that, and is there anything you do with your family to build on that connection?
LOPEZWell, honestly, I have grown so much since, at school I would just, you know, talk to most of my friends and everything. And now that I'm in the house, I see my sister more often. And, in the beginning, I have seen my mom and dad here a lot. And they would be, like, you know what, Christell? Come with me, work with me, and I will go sometimes with them. And they would teach me a lot of stuff of what they'd be doing, especially more with my dad. He works in electrician, and during winter, he was working outside, most of the time.
LOPEZAnd he sometimes would ask for help, one of us, me or my mom or my dad -- I mean, me and my sister. And we would, like, help him out. And we got more closer during those times.
NNAMDIYour mom has emphasized the importance of helping your community, especially in moments of crisis. Tell us about that, and about how she leads by example.
LOPEZSo, my mom decided to help the community with bringing boxes of food, a lot of vegetables, meat or fruits. She was worried about many people who didn't have no food, since they lost jobs or didn't have enough money. And my mom would have helped around more than -- like around 80 to 100 families. In front of our building, she would bring a truck and share out the food. And, also, would help people who had the COVID, would take them -- deliver it to their houses. And also take medicine, teas and all that, so they could feel better.
NNAMDIWhat's the biggest lesson you think you've learned from all of that, and from your mom, this past year?
LOPEZWell, the biggest lesson is to help, no matter what. You've got to help. You've got to help the community, because it's a good cause that you're doing, there. Always give a hand, because it's something -- someone who really needs it, at the moment.
NNAMDISydni, what was the most challenging moment of the past year, for you?
LETTE-DAFFEHThere's been a couple, but I'd say the largest challenges for me have been my mental health and just staying focused and motivated on my goals and going to college next year and those adversities that may come with that, as well as there has been a lot of social unrest within our country within this last year. And just seeing that unfold has definitely been very challenging for me, especially since, in this pandemic, it's been hard to actually go out and protest.
LETTE-DAFFEHAnd you want to stay safe, but you also want to be able to do your part. So, that's why I was a part of Make the Challenge D.C., which I was able to promote advocacy and work on D.C. and reflect on the things that we've been through, and do that safe from home in a way that can still contribute and make real change.
NNAMDIAshauna, what are your online classes like? Is technology ever an issue for you?
WESTONOh, yes. Technology is an issue for me, because, like, we have -- I have two other sisters that do online school, so we all use the area. So, sometimes our Wi-Fi will go out when I'm trying to talk to my teachers or ask a question. So, I have to put in a chat, and they'll get to the answer later, so that stops me from what I'm doing. And sometimes, like, the Wi-Fi will kick me out of class. So, that's a struggle, too, with online learning. But other than that, my teachers are really understanding, and they're very great when it comes to learning and work.
NNAMDIDebbie, a year into this pandemic, how much closer are we to bridging the digital divide and ensuring all kids can do school from home?
TRUONGYeah. I mean, I think in many cases we're closer. You know, education advocates have said that the pandemic really forced schools to address the digital divide in ways they haven't before, or forced them to accelerate what was already going on in terms of getting devices into the hands of students. You know, at the same time, I've still heard there are many concerns, especially around internet. It can be difficult for, you know, a family of, you know, five or six to have multiple children on Zoom calls at the same time. And that's a strain on the internet, and obviously, that affects the quality of the education they're getting.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with local high school students about their pandemic year, and with WAMU education reporter Debbie Truong. Our students are Ashauna Weston, a senior at the Caesar Chavez Public Charter School. Sydni Lette-Daffeh is a senior at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. And Christell Miranda Lopez is a junior at the Bell Multicultural High School. Let's go back to the phones. Here is Brittany in Rockville, Maryland. Brittany, go ahead. You're on the air.
BRITTANYHi, Kojo. Thank you. I just wanted to share. I'm a student at -- excuse me, I'm a student at GW Law School, and I just wanted to share that I think the pandemic has increased access for people like me. I'm a mom. I have two small children, and it would've -- my husband and I were just kind of praying, like, how are we going to finagle law school, and he's a teacher.
BRITTANYAnd the pandemic really, I think, forced the legal profession to modernize and to increase access for people like me, who ordinarily, you know, might not -- may have to make, you know, tough decisions about, you know, how they're going to attend law school or any type of professional program while maintaining a family. So, I think, in that sense, it has pushed a profession that traditionally has just been really restrictive, and hopefully will expand more access.
NNAMDISo, that has been, for you and your family, the silver lining in the pandemic.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us. Christell, what does class participation look like, when you're meeting on Zoom? Are you able to be collaborative? Does it feel more natural now?
LOPEZWell, now, it's a little different from school. Online, you just see a lot of bubbles of people, you know, initials. And many people don't participate. I think most of them are not really, like -- the teachers always be saying that most of the students are not participating because probably they're off their computer, they're not around it, or they're not focusing. And I sometimes just put in my photo to be like, oh, so, I would respond. I would read it, I would this, I would this and that.
LOPEZSo, the teacher would not, like, you know, start getting mad to the other students. And sometimes I don't put on my mic, because the background noises, there's a lot going on, sometimes, which I don't want to get the students distracted with what I have in the background.
NNAMDIDo you also not put on video?
LOPEZWell, I honestly don't have it on because of my connection. It sometimes cuts off and cuts on, be on. So, it's just like, I don't want the video to be more distractive in the classroom.
NNAMDIYou know, as I recall, the last Kojo in Your Community we did onsite was at Bell Multicultural. Has your school given you any information on when in-person classes might resume, and are you comfortable with that idea?
LOPEZWell, what I have heard was that, supposedly, we're going back in next year, I mean, this upcoming year. And it's required to use vaccine -- it's required that the students take the vaccine to enter. And I'm not really -- like, I'm not really sure about it, because, like, imagine I go to school and somebody contagious to me. And I got to really be careful because of my own family. My sister has diabetes, and my dad, too. And they have told us that it could be really -- that could be really dangerous for them, which is, you know, I've got to be aware about it. And, you know, I just wanted to stick on online, for the moment.
NNAMDIGot you. Debbie Truong, not all parents are comfortable yet with letting their kids return to school. And some teachers are also not comfortable with in-person instruction. How are schools accommodating both of these groups?
TRUONGYeah, so, you know, I've heard from families, especially those who belong to communities that have been hit hardest by COVID-19, that they're still reluctant to send their children back for in-person learning. You know, research shows that young children are less likely to suffer severe effects of the virus, but that risk isn't zero. And for older students, high schoolers, that risk increases. So, some families just aren't ready to take that chance.
TRUONGI've also heard from Asian-American students, especially in the D.C. suburbs who are worried about returning to in-person learning and facing harassment or discrimination because of the rise in anti-Asian hate during the pandemic. School systems are not, at the moment, requiring in-person classes, and they're allowing the students to stay virtual. Also, school systems in Maryland and Virginia have hired classroom monitors to supervise students who are learning in person, but who may have teachers that are still logging on virtually and teaching them remotely.
NNAMDISydni, even though you've been in entirely online classes, you still have your senior showcase coming up, which entails in-person dance rehearsals. How has it been to see your friends again, and what else have you been keeping busy with outside of class?
LETTE-DAFFEHIt's been great to see people again. It definitely -- it feels surreal that I haven't seen them in over a year, especially people that I have grown to be like a family with and see all day, every day. So, seeing them again has been great. We are allowed to record our senior showcase at our school, so they did give us that privilege. And we have to get tested before we come in. And we only have two hours in the building for a week, each day. So, that's how we are executing that.
LETTE-DAFFEHOther than working on that, through this pandemic, I was able to start my own business entitled Read Our Lips. And it spreads awareness on social justice issues, while making cosmetic products for people of color. So, that's another thing that I've really been able to home in on during this pandemic.
NNAMDIThis question for all of you. I'll start with you, Ashauna. How has it been keeping up friendships this past year? What's changed, and how do you stay in touch?
WESTONI feel like my friendships over the past year has grown, like, very much more closer. Because me and my friends, we talk every day, on the phone. And we don't live that far. I live the farthest out of all my friends, because, like, I live an hour away on the train. So, I rarely get to see them, because my schedule with work and my internships conflict with that. But I see them like, every, like, two or three weeks, we'll hang out. And my birthday's next month, so we get to hang out a lot that month.
WESTONBut the pandemic has made us, like, more closer, and I have confided in them more, lately.
NNAMDISame question to you, Christell. How's it been keeping up friendships this past year? What's changed, and how do you stay in touch?
LOPEZSo, I would say that most of my friends, I would just say that we're just a small group, now. We're not actually big. I'm really in touch with somebody, like, one of my close friends. I would say that, honestly, we don't see each other, but we would just, like, you know, hey, what's up, just stuff like that. And, honestly, I would just like -- it's kind of sucks not seeing them, because it's not the same as before. We would just be messing around at school. And, like, you'd just be texting, be like, oh, what's up, that's all. So, it's just kind of different, you know.
NNAMDIWell, Sydni, as we said earlier, you've got your senior showcase, so you've been seeing at least a few of your friends. But, in general, during this past year, how have you been trying to stay in touch with your friends and keeping up friendships?
LETTE-DAFFEHYeah. So, for me, it's been definitely more difficult, especially being a senior and having so many responsibilities. But also, just people have different home lives and people are going through different things in terms of mental health and other stuff like that. So, actually talking to people has been more difficult, especially when you're used to seeing people in person. I definitely check in on my friends and see how they're doing. And I know who I can talk to every day and how certain relationships have changed during this pandemic. But, overall, it has been difficult, but I'm still there for the people that I was close with. But the relationship that we've had has changed due to not seeing each other.
NNAMDIHere now is Michael, in Washington, D.C. Michael, we only have about a minute left, but go ahead, please. Oh, Michael's not there, so...
NNAMDIGo right ahead, Michael.
MICHAELHi. So, my thoughts have kind of shifted over the past few weeks, as vaccines have become available, especially the teachers. And what really prompted a shift last week was reading some research about how obviously people on the right, people of our former president, followers, were underestimating the risk, and the research bit showed that people on the left, in some ways, were overestimating the risk. That combined with the CDC guidelines that are coming out has really shifted my opinion more towards the idea that in-person really needs to happen sooner rather than later, and definitely in the fall.
NNAMDIWell, actually, Michael, you got to make the last comment. Debbie Truong, Christell Miranda Lopez, Sydni Lette-Daffeh and Ashauna Weston, thank you all for joining us. Today's segment on how local high school students are coping with the pandemic was produced by Ines Renique.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, historian Lonnie Bunch was the founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and Culture. And for almost two years, he's headed the entire Smithsonian, the world's largest museum system. We'll talk about how the Smithsonian has weathered the pandemic, and what he envisions for the institution's future. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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