When The ‘Most Crucial’ Year Is Interrupted, High School Juniors Are Left In Limbo

College prep usually ramps up during junior year. But with no in-person school and SATs postponed, anxiety among the class of 2021 grows.

HS Juniors
Gabriela Garcia is the director of counseling at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago. Here, she connects with juniors Alexis Ibarra and Ingrid Martinez remotely.
HS Juniors
Gabriela Garcia is the director of counseling at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago. Here, she connects with juniors Alexis Ibarra and Ingrid Martinez remotely.

When The ‘Most Crucial’ Year Is Interrupted, High School Juniors Are Left In Limbo

College prep usually ramps up during junior year. But with no in-person school and SATs postponed, anxiety among the class of 2021 grows.

Right before the COVID-19 crisis, Guadalupe Quinones, a junior at Northside College Prep High School in Chicago, was gearing up for the college application process. She was meeting with her school counselor and figuring out which schools best fit her interest in biomedical sciences.

They were working on a list of colleges, and she was practicing for the SAT, the high-stakes test used in the college admissions process.

Then everything changed. When schools shut down in March to prevent the spread of the virus, many events key to preparing juniors for college, including summer enrichment programs and college visits, were canceled. The SAT and the ACT also were postponed.

“There’s been a lot of anxiety about what’s going to happen with the admissions process next year,” Guadalupe said, adding that without in-person contact with her counselors and teachers, she’s worried it will be extra hard to get advice in finding colleges and obtain letters of recommendation. “I just don’t think it’s going to be the same virtually,” she said.

Junior year is considered the most important in high school, when the college preparation kicks into high gear. Students not only take high-stake tests, but grades also play a key role.

But with so much up in the air, students heading into their last year in high school are unsure if and how this crisis might hurt them. They are confronting a world where they face many unanswered questions about what the college application and admissions process will look like in the fall or how best they can catch up. There are also concerns about rising juniors, who will head into a junior year with so much unknown.

“The junior year is most crucial because technically this is the last time that they have an opportunity to impact the transcript before college admissions,” said Andrea Stone, a junior and senior guidance counselor at Southland College Prep, a charter high school in south suburban Matteson.

Some juniors have used this time to lift their grades in areas where they struggled. Most schools are following state guidance that says student assignments during the closure should only count if they improve a student’s grade. But many are having a hard time re-engaging, meeting with their counselors remotely and studying for the SAT tests on their own. The state plans to offer the test in the fall for all students who were scheduled to take it in April.

“All of that hard work that they did, and all of that building and all of that momentum, has been broken,” Stone said. “Now they have to start over.”

But it’s not just about the academics. Many students have lost a loved one during this pandemic. “We have juniors who have lost a grandmother, who have lost a cousin, might have lost a father, might have lost a brother,” Stone said.

She and other counselors try to be mindful of that and meet juniors where they are emotionally.

“The reality is that we are working with students that are burned out, that are very stressed,” said Gabriela Garcia, a school counselor at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, a Catholic high school in the Pilsen neighborhood.

Some students have to take care of siblings or take on jobs to help support their family.

“Stressed brains can’t learn,” Garcia said. “We prioritize their well being over a high academic achievement right now, because that’s unrealistic for so many people.”

The school is planning a remote college boot camp over the summer to help juniors get caught up on college prep work.

“Not thinking about college right now”

In other parts of the city where COVID-19 has hit especially hard, some students “are not thinking about college right now,” said Andrea Barron. She is a post-secondary coordinator at Farragut Career Academy on the Southwest side. Barron was hired through Enlace Chicago, a community organization in Little Village.

“You have those high-achieving students that are thinking about it, and you know that are going to overcome, and we have these other students who are not really seeing past this school year,” she said.

Barron was based at Farragut before schools shut down to provide support to other school counselors. She’s been trying to reach out to juniors, but she can’t access Chicago Public Schools student information while she is not at Farragut.

At the same time that juniors are facing great uncertainty, many colleges and universities are also figuring out their admissions plans for next year.

At the University of Illinois, they are reminding students there is still time to get on track.

“Things are just postponed,” said Andy Borst, the director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “They will still likely happen.”

His school will be looking at the different grade scales high schools have begun using during the pandemic so admissions officers can evaluate spring grades. U of I is also waiting to see if the SAT can go ahead in the fall as planned.

For now, students need to wait patiently, Borst said.

“Thinking about what college is going to be for our current juniors … and seniors — it’s nothing but provoking anxiety,” he added.

Borst said summer is a good time for rising seniors to start working on their college essays. But, most importantly, he said, they need to focus on their well being.

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @AdrianaCardMag.