Class of COVID: For Minnesota high school seniors, pandemic taught lessons in struggle, perseverance

Six kids pose for photos
From left to right clockwise: Kely Bunay, Kelly McFarren, Amerin Chamberlain, Allie Meyer, Raeline McVicker and Aisha Abdullah.
Ben Hovland and Liam James Doyle | MPR News

Raeline McVicker remembers the excitement four years ago when Gov. Tim Walz said Minnesota schools would close “temporarily” to slow the spread of COVID-19. It was March 15, 2020, and the state had 35 confirmed cases.

The shutdown seemed like a fun one-off, a few bonus days home to start the spring. School buildings were supposed to reopen on March 30.

“We were all like, ‘Yeah! We get an extra break,’” said Rae, who was an eighth grader in her first year at Red Wing High School. “We were so excited to have like a few extra days to be out of school — ‘Yay! We get to completely play hooky!’”

Ten days later, things changed. Minnesota’s COVID cases jumped to nearly 300, with 26 people hospitalized. Walz ordered school buildings closed another five weeks, saying the state needed to “buckle it up.” Weeks later, Walz shut down in-person learning for the rest of the school year.

A student stands in a greenhouse
Seventeen-year-old senior Raeline McVicker inside the greenhouse at Red Wing High School on Feb. 29. She helped design the hydroponic grow system for the greenhouse.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

COVID was accelerating, schools were staying shut — and Rae and her peers were about to be tossed into a high school experience like no other, one that forced students into a new kind of isolation, that demanded focus in Zoom call classes while dances, band practices, sports and other traditions of high school life evaporated.

Rae, 17, who’s set to graduate this spring, was among the hundreds of thousands of Minnesota students who saw their high school education disrupted over the past four years by closed schools, months of mask-wearing, social unrest after the killing of George Floyd, distance learning, illness and grief over opportunities and loved ones lost.

Nationally, achievement fell. Observers spoke of the pandemic creating a lost generation in education.

Notebooks are tucked neatly in a black backpack
Allie Meyer’s class notebooks sit in her backpack in the library at Red Wing High School on Feb. 29.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Still, in that struggle many found ways to push ahead. Students interviewed by MPR News in Red Wing and the Twin Cities spoke proudly of the way they persevered in a harsh era. How they made it to the doorstep of graduation in March 2024 is a story of resilience that didn’t seem certain in March 2020.

Stuck at home, unable to see or make friends at school, Rae recalled her initial excitement turning to boredom. When distance learning replaced in-person teaching, she found she hated it.

“I have to be in a classroom to be able to learn things,” Rae said. “I was failing my classes really badly. COVID really threw a curve ball in my education.” 

Distance learning ‘nightmare’

Allie Meyer, another Red Wing student also in eighth grade in 2020 when Minnesota schools closed, had been looking forward to becoming an official high schooler. 

“My expectations coming in were that I was going to be a part of everything and I was going to go to every game or activity possible,” she said. “I was really excited to be involved in pep fests,” Allie said. “Once COVID hit, all of those opportunities essentially disappeared … I definitely had a reality check and then a COVID check.”

Allie was one of many students who found ways to maintain good grades when forced to sit at home in front of her laptop, listening to lectures via Zoom or Google Meets, watching videos and completing homework assignments. But that didn’t mean that online learning didn’t take a toll.

She was able to complete her assignments quickly, on her own time, but then was required to continue sitting in front of her computer for hours.

A student works at a laptop
Eighteen-year-old senior Allie Meyer checks her email in the library at Red Wing High School on Feb. 29. She says she struggled with online learning.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“It was really hard, because then I was very checked out during the actual lessons,” Allie said. “I spent a lot of time online … I definitely didn’t enjoy sitting on my phone for hours during the day. But, you know, I still had to be logged on to my computer for my class period, even if I wasn’t learning anything, so I just had to sit there.”

The social media scrolling took a toll on her mental health. She found herself fluctuating between depression and fear of missing out as her feed boomeranged between images of people in crises around the world and influencers who seemed to be having a better time than she was. 

Amerin Chamberlain, a student currently set to graduate Venture Academy in Minneapolis, had a similar experience during distance learning. 

“It was like a nightmare,” Amerin said. “I got in a habit of, like, ‘I’ll just go to class, I’ll check in and then I’ll go back to sleep.’ And then I got in the habit of doing my work late.”

He struggled to focus in online classes and spent increasing amounts of time staying up late at night, playing video games. Then, when it was time to return to in-person learning, he couldn’t stay awake in class, and struggled to turn his work in on time.

Statewide student surveys administered in 2022, the year after Minnesota students spent extended time in online learning, found a growing mental health crisis with nearly a third of students saying they struggled with long-term mental health problems. Nearly half said they only sometimes or rarely felt good about their futures.

The statewide student survey does not include data on screen use, but a national study of children ages 4 to 12 conducted in 2021 and 2022 found kids’ screen time use increased during the pandemic and remained elevated even after many public health precautions were lifted. 

A student sits at a desk
Eighteen-year-old senior Aisha Abdullah talks with her classmates during Chinese class at Minneapolis South High School on March 6. Aisha says she feels like the pandemic made her more introverted.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

For Aisha Abdullah, now a senior set to graduate Minneapolis South High School, the increased time online and at home alone is something she thinks still affects her. 

“It was hard,” Aisha said. “I kind of think it made me like more introverted after that year, because I think naturally, I’m an extrovert. But now I would like I really like value my alone time, because I was so used to that for the entire year.”

Her classmate, 18-year old Kelly McFarren agreed. 

“My social battery isn’t nearly as large as what it could have been if the pandemic didn’t hit,” Kelly said. “I find myself to be a very extroverted person still, but yeah, I do need like a day to reset and charge myself and just take it easy.”

Back in the building, but still struggling

The return to in-person learning in the 2021-22 school year was not the easy transition many high school students were expecting. 

In Red Wing, Rae and Allie noticed their classmates wearing pajamas a lot more at school and avoiding eye contact and conversations. 

“COVID took away a lot of physical and social exercise for our whole grade,” Allie said. “Coming back people don’t have the same emotional stamina they used to … Nobody can be out and talk for as long as maybe they used to, because they’ve been so used to these long periods of silence.” 

Whether or not to wear a mask — something adults struggled to agree on — was controversial. “Students were at war with the masks. It was almost like if you were wearing a mask, you were the weak link,” Rae said. “It kind of tore people apart.”

A young man poses on a basketball court
Seventeen-year-old Amerin Chamberlain stands for a portrait on a basketball court at East Phillips Park in Minneapolis on Feb. 29. Amerin described distance learning as "a nightmare."
Liam James Doyle for MPR News

When Amerin Chamberlain returned to in-person learning, his late night video game habits caught up to him and he struggled academically his sophomore and junior years of school. But he noticed he wasn’t the only one having trouble. 

“Before COVID and stuff, the teachers had, like, more energy … I felt like teachers wanted to be there,” Amerin said. “Once we got done with online learning and we were able to go back to school, teachers were more exhausted, like they didn’t really want to be there.”

His junior year was the hardest — that was when all the missed credits caught up to him and a new wave of challenging ACT and SAT college admissions tests rolled in. 

He said he asked his teachers for help in turning around his falling grades, and they responded with extra coaching and assignments that helped him make up credits. He’s now on track to graduate on time, and he’s planning to attend Augsburg University in Minneapolis. Eventually he wants to work as an elementary school teacher.

Not every student has succeeded in finding their way back to the learning and credits they need to finish high school.

A whiteboard with drawings and a meeting note
A whiteboard advertising an upcoming Asian Student Association meeting hangs in Dingman Yu’s Chinese class at Minneapolis South High School on March 6. Senior Aisha Abdullah serves as Asian Student Association president.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The most recent data from statewide test scores show an ongoing plunge in math, reading and science scores as compared to before the pandemic. 

School attendance also changed drastically during the pandemic and chronic absenteeism continues to be an issue. Data compiled by the organization Attendance Works found the number of Minnesota schools experiencing high and extreme chronic absence skyrocketed to over 70 percent in the 2021-22 school year — more than double what it had been before the pandemic. 

Graduation rates are a relative bright spot in Minnesota. Last year the rate of students successfully completing high school started to inch back up after a pandemic drop following 2020’s historic high of 83.8 percent. 

‘Teach myself how to do hard things’

TJ Valtierra, branch director of Little Earth Boys and Girls Club in Minneapolis, said COVID affected his community and the families he works with in a variety of ways. 

“Overall, we’ve seen a lot of struggle … there’s groups of kids that are still not really recovered,” he said. “Some of them quit playing sports and some of them are getting in trouble. Some of them aren’t necessarily doing anything wrong, but they’re just kind of existing. They don’t really have a lane to succeed or thrive.”

He said he doesn’t want people to forget everything students in his neighborhood have been through: closed schools, the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the social unrest that followed.

“I’m just super proud of all the kids who have overcome COVID and everything else that they have to deal with, and to still have a future and be passing their classes and excelling.”

Some students had more to overcome than others. Kely Bunay, now a senior at Academy of Holy Angels, a private Catholic school in Richfield, felt alone trying to navigate new technology during distance learning. 

Her parents, who moved to Minnesota from Ecuador two decades ago, didn’t understand the online systems she was using and had never graduated high school themselves. As an only child, Kely didn’t have siblings to help her figure things out. 

A young woman and her father walk next to a chainlink fence
Kely Bunay goes for a walk with her father, Klever Bunay, in St. Paul on March 5. During the pandemic lockdown, Kely frequently went for long walks by herself to clear her thoughts.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“I did struggle … but I feel like I did the best during that year academically,” Kely said. “I just felt like it was really important for me to keep going because of what my parents also went through, because they never really finished, they didn’t really go into high school. I just felt like if I didn’t go through, if I let myself get distracted easily by just being home, I was sort of gonna … disappoint them, because they’ve always supported me.” 

Kely’s decision to dig deep served her well. While many of her peers struggled to make up for lost time in their sophomore and junior years of high school, she sailed ahead and is now trying to decide which college to attend and whether to become a teacher or air traffic controller. 

In Minneapolis, Aisha and Kelly think a lot of their success is due to the fact that they had more resources than some other students: reliable internet, quiet rooms in which to do their homework, families that supported them. 

Aisha has racked up a number of college credits before graduating and is trying to decide where to attend college. Kelly currently has his heart set on the University of Minnesota’s College of Engineering and Computer Science. 

“It’s definitely always gonna stick with me, because you can’t really forget that,” Aisha said of the COVID years. “But I think I managed, OK. And my high school experience was still pretty good. I’m still happy about what happened.”

Both Aisha and her classmate Kelly wish their high school had more mental health resources to help kids deal with the historic disruption their school suffered during the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, which happened blocks from their school building.

“I just think kids need more help. I don’t know if there’s actually enough resources, especially at South, for kids to get help,” Aisha said. “We need more counselors and more mental health help. I just think because we’re like, older, they expect us to really have it all done. But we don’t, because we’re still kids.”

A young man stands in front of a row of blackboards
Eighteen-year-old senior Kelly McFarren poses for a photo in the Career and College Center at Minneapolis South High School on March 6. He says his school needs increased mental health resources.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

In Red Wing, the key to both Allie and Rae’s pandemic recovery was an internship program that allowed them to feel like the decisions they were making in high school mattered for their futures.  

Rae spent time surveying a field near her home for the Department of Natural Resources and is also experimenting with hydroponics — projects she said got her out of her “repetitive” school-home-work rotation cycle and helped her realize “what else was out there.”

And for Rae’s classmate Allie, an internship with a local company that allowed her to shadow some engineers at work reignited her passion for her high school math classes.

She’s now planning to pursue a degree in engineering, likely at Iowa State University.

“The key word for these last four years has just been recovery,” Allie said. “Things went downhill and they went downhill fast. And I think as an individual, I was able to recover and not only just come back to my previous point, but then improve beyond that. I had to teach myself how to do hard things and how to focus again and learn. And I’m really proud of that recovery.”

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