What's it like to be in high school during the omicron surge?

Twin Cities students share their realities, hopes and fears in a time of uncertainty and chaos

Schools are continuing to struggle with high absence rates among students, teachers and substitute teachers due to a surge in COVID-19 infections. Minneapolis Public Schools and many other districts across the state are shifting to distance learning in response.

To hear how the pandemic is affecting life at school from those who are living it every day, we reached out to a group of high schoolers from around the Twin Cities area. Here are their words.

The following is a transcript, lightly edited for clarity. Listen to the full segment with the audio player above.

Teigan Blaine, Benilde-St. Margaret’s

COVID has been going on since March 2020, so that's going to be a two-year anniversary this upcoming March.

portrait of a teenager
Teigan Blaine is a junior at Benilde-St. Margaret’s in St. Louis Park, Minn.
Shott Photos

It’s been a lack of normalcy within schools. You're in and out due to quarantine — if you've been around somebody, if you've been exposed. It's a lack of routine. And then you have classmates, people that you're working with on projects, they could suddenly disappear out of class. It's been difficult. It's been frustrating.

But there's been a real sense of community at school, and I feel like people are happier than ever just to be able to see their friends at school. And I think that's been a huge part of what's helped during this pandemic.

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Jerome Treadwell, Highland Park

I feel a sense of hopelessness — hopelessness for the future. Because every day, since our [first] day back from winter break, Jan. 3, daily we’ve had 20 or more staff absent and an abundance of students also absent.

portrait of a teenager
Jerome Treadwell is a senior at Highland Park in St. Paul.
Bobby Rogers for BuzzFeed News

For the past week, I've had to sit at lunch without my friends because they've been quarantining because of contact. Some days, your art teacher is your phy-ed teacher, or your math teacher is a substitute without understanding of the material.

We’ve seen an alarming rate of student failure at the height of the pandemic — nearly 40 percent of students experienced failing grades [in St. Paul public high schools in the first quarter of the 2020-2021 school year].

I believe schools must be shut down and adequate synchronized learning must be implemented now. Now's the time. Many argue whether schools provide daycare functions for students. And I agree, absolutely, yes. As part of the disenfranchised Black community of St. Paul, I know that families in my community need schools in order to make the economic means for their families.

I'm calling on the school district of St. Paul to make an appropriate and immediate decision for the safety of their staff, students and families.

Marlee Williams, Lakeville Area Schools

Overall, COVID has taken a toll on many aspects of my life. I spent last year struggling to stay motivated without the direct support of my teachers and fellow students. And although my grades weren't affected necessarily, I could tell with the lack of effort, I really wasn't learning any of the material. And this made me worried: Would this affect me in the long run?

Marlee Williams
Marlee Williams is a senior in the Lakeville Area Schools district.
Grace Blumberg Photography

Moving into this year, I was apprehensive to be back fully in person, even with masks, and all the frustrations I expected have been met. The majority of my classmates don't wear their masks correctly — and many of them not at all. And few teachers remind them of the necessity. Students come to school sick or even after receiving a positive COVID test.

Now after the holidays, our cases are skyrocketing, much like the rest of the state and country, and still masks are not worn correctly — and again commonly not at all. I want to be back to school completely in person and hopefully one day without masks. But that won't be able to happen safely in [school district] 194 until our school officials and students start taking this life-threatening illness seriously.

Alex Pfankuch, Highland Park

I'm a captain of my school's Nordic skiing and cross country running teams. COVID has had a big impact on sports, as we've had to completely postpone weight room strength sessions, as well as team dinners.

teenager posing for a photo during cross country
Alex Pfankuch is a senior at Highland Park in St. Paul.
Jen Rusch

We've had varsity guys have to sit out of races because of COVID and have had to rapidly reschedule and make our own accommodations, such as providing our own transportation to races. Even for the Nordic state meet in Biwabik, Minn., the district is not able to provide us with lodging, so we had to make our own arrangements.

While there have been many hurdles in the season due to COVID, we're still grateful that we're able to continue practicing and competing.

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