This story is part of the series “2020 Lessons.” This fall, WBEZ education reporters are following students and teachers from the Chicago area as they make their way through an education world turned upside down by the coronavirus.
Over the last month, high school students in Illinois began the school year amid the coronavirus pandemic — most of them remotely. It bears little resemblance to virtual learning in the spring when school buildings first shut down.
Most students are now having to log in to class and face the teacher every day, as well as take more exams and complete more assignments. For juniors in particular, the pressure is on as they start preparing for post-graduation life, all while trying out a completely new way of schooling.
This fall, reporter Susie An is following two suburban high school juniors from different communities to see how this critical year unfolds.
Jordan and Lessly
Jordan King goes to Naperville North High School in the western suburbs, a well-off area with well-resourced schools. Jordan’s outgoing and is involved in a lot of extracurricular activities like the Girl Scouts. She describes herself as a “super focused student.”
“During school, I get really anxious about everything. So staying on top of my work definitely makes me feel better,” said Jordan with a bright smile.
Jordan’s an athletic student who would typically be playing field hockey in the fall. Instead, she’s attending weekly practices.
Lessly Gomez is a junior at Zion-Benton Township High School in the northern suburbs. Pre-pandemic, the school’s population was made up of 57% low-income students. She’s soft-spoken, reserved and considers herself to be a pretty good student.
“I feel like I turn everything in as soon as I can, and I try my best,” she said, though she admitted she tends to lose a little motivation during the second semester.
“But I still try my best to turn everything in even if it’s a little bit late,” said Lessly, who often wears a gentle expression.
They’ve both seen COVID-19 up close and take the virus seriously, especially during a critical year as they look ahead to college. Over the summer, Jordan’s aunt died of complications of COVID-19. Her family — Jordan, her parents and younger sister — drove to Wisconsin to attend her funeral. She said it was hard for all of them.
Both of Lessly’s parents contracted COVID-19 a little before school started.
Her father works at a factory, but he isn’t sure where he caught it. The family sectioned off the house, and her father took care of her mother upstairs since his symptoms were mild. Lessly watched over her younger sister and brother downstairs. She feels lucky they didn’t get too sick and relieved they recovered before school started.
A full school day from home
Both Lessly and Jordan thought the spring semester went poorly because they didn’t learn much, and were only given assignments but no instruction. They weren’t expected to sign in to any virtual classes.
But this fall is a new experience. They are both expected to be online as much as six hours a day, with the day mirroring a traditional in-person school day.
The girls have both been in school for about a month. In the first couple of weeks, Lessly said she got up early to get ready and have breakfast before class.
Once class began, she said there were some connectivity issues.
“There would be times where the whole class would freeze,” Lessly said. “I’d just be moving side to side to see if it was everyone or if I was the only person whose computer froze.”
Lessly is the oldest of three. She has a freshman sister and 7-year-old brother. Lessly has had to help her sister with some technical issues, since it’s her first year using the computer for schoolwork. Her mother stays with them at home, and sometimes leaves to pick up housekeeping jobs.
Whatever novelty that existed for e-learning has worn off for Lessly. Now, she hits snooze on the alarm and lays in bed until the last moment before she needs to log on. She usually does her classes from bed. It’s a common story for many high school students.
Jordan, on the other hand, sits up at a desk under her lofted bed. At first, she worried if she’d be able to stomach several weeks of remote classes.
But now, she’s come up with ways to make school fun, and she feels energized.
“The past week, I’ve had some friends come over, and we’ve done online learning together. On Monday, I went out for breakfast. We’re just making it super fun,” Jordan said.
Jordan’s dad works outside of the house in finance. Her mom works from home as a consultant, but is struggling to keep clients because of the pandemic. She puts responsibility on Jordan to help her middle-school sister with her work during the spring. Luckily, Jordan said her sister seems to have the hang of classes now, and hasn’t had to bother her yet.
Both girls are busy with school each day and are taking school seriously, but there’s some clear differences in their academic experiences. Lessly said she’s only had two tests so far. Jordan had three tests this week, alone. That’s on top of a few tests she’s already completed this fall.
Dissecting summer unrest
Students have returned to school after a summer of social unrest over policing and racial inequity. Those issues haven’t been a big topic in either Lessly or Jordan’s classes, but the conversations are very different when the discussion does come up.
Lessly is taking law enforcement classes in hopes of earning high school and college credits. In one, her teacher has been lecturing in defense of police.
Lessly said the class watched videos that might be hard for some to take, like a video of Kyle Rittenhouse being attacked after he allegedly shot someone during the civil unrest in Kenosha this summer. Her teacher said Rittenhouse was defending himself. He is charged with killing two people. The students also saw recent video of two officers being shot outside a California hospital.
Lessly said she’s learned police are often portrayed in a negative light. She said when officers do a good job, like saving someone’s life, that story isn’t widely shared.
“The internet only shows the bad things cops are doing instead of the good,” she said. “They just showed that they kill people or [take] people against their will and only show the bad things.”
Jordan’s Advanced Placement Language and Composition class is taking a different approach. Her teacher is incorporating social justice in the lectures. Jordan has also been part of a few student discussions. She said it can be uncomfortable, but she’s heartened to see people are willing to listen and learn.
Returning to school in-person
A number of high schools in the Chicago area have a plan to transition from all-remote school to some form of in-person learning this fall.
Naperville schools aim to begin a hybrid mix of remote and in-person learning in October. Zion-Benton has in-person and hybrid plans, but hasn’t set a timeline to move away from remote learning yet.
Lessly said she’s a little worried about going back to school after seeing what the coronavirus does first hand.
“But at the same time, I wouldn’t mind because I do want to go back to school instead of staying home in my room,” she said. “It’s really easy for me to fall asleep if I want to.”
The girls, who both want to go to college, are also beginning to think about what lies ahead. High-stakes exams like the SAT are scheduled for this school year.
“Freshmen and sophomores are just gliding by right now,” said Jordan. “They don’t have anything to worry about, and they’re online. So I’m very jealous of that.”
Jordan is already reaching out to her counselor and scheduling virtual college visits, while Lessly is beginning to consider her options.
Jordan said schools seem to have made accommodations for the atypical nature of this school year. She said despite everything, she’s hoping this may end up being an easier time to be junior.
With one month of school down, many questions remain about how this year will go. Will their schools return to in-person learning? Or will they have to spend the whole year in front of a computer? Both girls want to meet their teachers and other classmates in person, but they’re at the whim of the pandemic.
“It’s really different,” said Jordan. “It’s not something I’m used to, but I’m taking it a day at a time.”