High Schoolers Have Their Say
In-person classes were cancelled, but BERGEN’s fourth annual High School Forum wasn’t. Here’s what 11 teens, convened on Zoom, reported about their school lives in the time of coronavirus.
For the past three years, the members of our High School Forum have talked candidly about the problems, pressures and joys of their lives at school. This year the idea was the same, but the situation was different in one big way: Thanks to the quarantine, “going to school” for the year’s past three months meant sitting at home in front of a screen. Still, no contagion can stop the intellectual, social and physical energy of teenagers, and if you can get them to level with you they’re always worth hearing from—even if it takes a special lingo, with terms like APUSH, Canvas and proximity cards. Led by Editor in Chief Rita Guarna, we began by tackling the elephant in the Zoom room.
Rita: How concerned are you about getting COVID-19 or possibly giving it to someone—and are you nervous about going back to school?
Katelyn: I’m definitely concerned about giving it to people, like elderly family who I know are more at risk. So I’ve been very cautious about that—wearing a mask, not really seeing people and staying at home.
Rita: Have you heard from your high schools yet about what they will be doing?
Aurora: I haven’t heard anything from my principal or my superintendent, but I have heard from my volleyball coach. So far they don’t know what the plans are or if we can all be in the gym at the same time. Temperature checks and stuff like that will be a big part of it.
Isabella: I don’t really see us going back to school in September, and to be honest I don’t think it would really be safe if we did.
Maeve: While we as students want to know if we’re going to be able to go back to school, I also can understand how that decision is going to take time. We’re going to have to see where we are in August.
Natalia: For me, it really does provoke some fear. I know a couple friends and their family members who did have COVID-19, and a friend lost her grandparents to it.
Aurora: If we do end up going back to school in September, it would be a good idea to do the antibody tests.
Isabella: Something really concerning to me is the lack of fear as quarantine moves on. People have stopped wearing masks, decided they don’t have to stay in their homes anymore. But the virus is still out there. I lost my grandfather to coronavirus. He was in the Dominican Republic. It hurt our family. We’re staying very careful, very vigilant, but a lot of people aren’t doing that. That’s what’s so scary. If you’re not careful you could hurt yourself and hurt somebody else.
Julia: It’s kind of scary—people are getting this false sense of security because things are starting to open up. But I think that’s for economic purposes rather than safety. We can’t keep the country closed forever, but it’s not safe if you’re not still being cautious.
Katelyn: No matter what precautions the school puts up during the school day, you don’t know what’s happening outside of school. You can be at risk when you go back to school.
Rita: You guys have been doing online learning. Can you tell us the pros and cons?
Lily: I found online schools to be less stressful, and my grades did improve from it. I know some schools went pass/fail, but my school kept letter grades; that helped motivate me. At the beginning we had full days of online school, and that was very difficult. Eventually they went to half days; that improved the situation.
Rita: Do you think the teachers were a little less tough because of what was going on?
Lily: I do think the majority of my teachers were easier, although it depended on the teacher. My math teacher increased the amount of work we had. But also my AP [advanced placement] classes—since we finished our AP tests, that lowered my workload as well. But at the beginning, when we had the full day of school, I would get headaches at the end of the day.
Natalia: Online learning helped a lot of students. The only thing it really didn’t help at all would be my AP classes. Our teachers didn’t know what was really happening with the testing. That, I think, was the hardest part, maneuvering around the change in the system.
Mariel: I was really surprised how easily I adapted to online learning. My teachers did a great job with always having Zoom available. Even after class they would help me out with assignments, which helped my grades a lot.
Bryan: Like Mariel said, Ridgewood did a really good job of transitioning to online school. Having each student with their own Chromebook [a laptop that runs on a Google operating system] really helped. A con is that teachers try so hard to have students collabo- rate on group projects and try Zoom breakout rooms, or just get phone numbers and FaceTime each other, and that just didn’t work. (Laughs.) At the end of the year I told them we shouldn’t do this if [online learning] were to continue.
Maeve: For the average hard-working, high-achieving student, it wasn’t that hard to adapt. But there were definitely days when it was completely, 100 percent self-motivation. Sometimes it was really hard to just sit down and do your work with no one telling you to do it. That led to people not submitting their work.
Eamon: One thing I liked was that I was able to record the classes. If I had trouble in math or physics, I would look back on that class and see what I was having trouble with. I could even email the teacher saying, “I had trouble with this problem in class, can you help me out with it?” Same thing with homework. But it was definitely hard, and I did sleep through some of the classes. (Everyone laughs.) I did it in my room because my parents are working from home too, and my sister had school too, so I was in my room for the most part and on my bed lying down.
Aurora: Personally, I wasn’t the biggest fan of online schooling. But one of the pros was that my teachers could spend more time with us on a topic. My “APUSH” [Advanced Placement United States History] teacher, leading up to the AP [test], would spend hours making sure we knew the information we needed to know. However, it’s harder some days than others to get yourself to class at 8 a.m., especially if you’re not going to a building. I don’t like being at home. It makes it harder to reach out to your teachers. For instance, my AP Spanish teacher, he’s pretty old, so he doesn’t know how to use—I don’t mean it in a bad way; he’s just not adept to using computers and emails. And some people had trouble uploading.
Hayden: My sleep schedule was a lot better with online than it was in regular school. It helped that we all had laptops and could drop them off at the school if we needed to for repairs. As time went on and the coronavirus picked up, teachers had very fluid timetables for when things were due.
Katelyn: At River Dell, each of us has our own laptop that we take home at the end of the school day. Before we left school they were prepping us for the online classes: We went through how to use [Microsoft] Teams, how to use video chat, how to sign in. They were very clear with expectations.
Maeve: A lot of students, if they have learn- ing disabilities, or struggles with self-motivation, it was difficult. I did see students struggling in that area. Even myself—most of us can probably say we had days where it was just really hard to do work. And part of that was also the struggle to separate school and home life. For my school district, you could submit your work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. I would be doing work up until 7 p.m. because I just didn’t have the motivation to get it all done in the morning.
Bryan: Going off Katelyn and Maeve’s point about the teachers, my teachers were really understanding about going on Zoom and Google Meet. Just as we were learning, they were learning as well. They were understanding if you couldn’t make a Meet or a Zoom. My WiFi in the beginning was very shaky and lagging, so a lot of the times I would turn my camera off because I didn’t want the entire class to lag.
Rita: What kind of support did schools provide to help with mental health issues?
Aurora: At Bergenfield, you could reach out to your counselors at any time. I reached out to my counselor. But even with that, one of the biggest things with online schooling, it takes a person wanting to reach out if they are feeling that way. Especially when you’re home and you’re isolated, a lot of people lose that motivation, if they get to that dark place, to reach out to someone from school to say, “This has been going on, and I don’t feel well,” or “Someone passed away, and I don’t know how to handle it.” But when you’re in school it’s easier to reach out to someone. Someone might see you and say, “Hey, are you OK?”
Mariel: I got an email every day from my guidance counselor about her day in quarantine. She would even send us recipes.
Bryan: Our superintendent would send us a note every week in an email. Toward the bottom of the letter there was a hotline number if you ever needed to talk to someone, and I thought that was nice for him to add that.
Natalia: A couple of my friends struggle with mental health issues. They reached out to me personally, like on social media, rather than reaching out to the school. Our teachers would send us little messages through Canvas and say, “If you need to talk I’m on Google Meet right now; these are my hours.” I have been constantly seeing news concerning COVID-19, and that had a toll on me. But going to classes and hearing my teacher talk in more of a light tone definitely brought up the mood within our classes and brought this sense of unity.
Isabella: My school and my teachers were really great with that. For example, my guidance counselor, every week we’d get an email saying, “Here’s what’s going on with me, hope everything’s well with you, my inbox is always open.”
Julia: If I have a personal issue I’m more likely to reach out to a teacher than to a guidance counselor, but that’s just me. The teachers are very open, and they’re definitely trying hard during class, and I feel like I can be vulnerable with them and talk to them. In one of my history classes we would open each class with a general discussion of what was going on in the world. My English teacher would open every class with a song; she’d lip-sync to the song, and that was a fun way to set the tone and put everyone at ease.
Hayden: I had a webinar, and at the end my head guidance counselor was like, “Remember, if you need anything whatsoever, I’m always just an email away.” And the teachers—during their class times they would always have Zoom hours [and say,] “If you need to talk about anything that we went over yesterday, or you’re feeling like your workload is too large right now for what’s going on in your life, we can 100 percent go over that.”
Eamon: We got an email from the principal every day saying what type of schedule it was that day, announcements, and he’d normally have a little message at the end of that too. And then, Bergen Catholic being a religious school, we had a couple of virtual Masses and prayer services.
Katelyn: I heard a lot more from the sports coaches and administrators where they’d try to keep the students engaged.
Aurora: What my teachers said with all the AP classes was, “OK, if you guys study and everyone passes the test, when we come back next year, if we hopefully do, we’ll do a big pizza party.”
Rita: Can we all come?
Aurora: I can ask! And my math teacher would stay on an extra 30 minutes after class and say, “If anyone wants to talk privately, you know I’m always here.”
Rita: Have there been changes in your school regarding racism and diversity in light of what’s been going on?
Lily: My school did a very good job of discussing current events, especially with the Black Lives Matter movement. The classes that talked about it most were APUSH and AP Lit. In APUSH we talked about the history of systemic racism. We formed a Black Student Union club and 60 members attended each meeting, and we had the attorney general come on the Zoom. That was really cool.
Natalia: Recently there was the change in mascots at Pascack Valley and Hills. The Board of Education decided on removing the mascots—at Valley we were the “Indians” and Hills were the “Cowboys,” but now those are removed. There was a Board of Education meeting with them listening to what the students had to say, and the first time it was students speaking against the mascot. I actually gave a speech.
Isabella: My English teacher had us all write five- to eight-line poems, and we went on a Zoom for discussion and then we held up the poems, printed them out and she took a picture that was posted on Instagram. The point was to have us think in a global perspective, outside of our own quarantine boxes, about what’s going on in the world. And my history teacher had us talk about Black Lives Matter. Before the Zoom meeting she sent us an email with Trevor Noah talking about George Floyd’s death. I was just horrified that these things could happen. I didn’t know about any of this, and then I realized our school curriculum doesn’t teach us how to be global citizens. The only class that does that is Global Issues, taught by my history teacher, Dr. Kenney, and she does an amazing job. But that’s only a half-year course. I was thinking that our education system needs to change.
Bryan: My history teacher did a really good job of making her students aware of the issues going on in the country. It was scary, because we were learning about the 1960s in U.S. History and seeing the parallels back then and today. It was kind of upsetting for me personally because I thought that our country evolved tremendously, but clearly we have not. The honors and AP history students were invited to a symposium where we shared our thoughts on the country and how we can improve as a high school and a community.
Hayden: My Government and Politics teacher held several Zooms about the events, and it was great because not everyone in my class leans one way. She started out every one saying, “This is civil, we’re not arguing; this is just simply to cultivate conversation.” It was great seeing people that didn’t line up on every idea being able to see the other side. Julia: I joined our school’s Diversity Council because I figured that was the best way to get involved. I never really thought [before] about how we mostly learn about white authors and mathematicians and scientists. And I think that’s part of my privilege.
Katelyn: I talked about current events mostly in my APUSH class. Our teacher tried to keep it simple, but I definitely saw some tension between students with different political opinions.
Aurora: It’s important for us as the future of this country and the world to become globally educated. You can’t 100 percent trust what you see on social media. It’s important to learn what’s going on in other countries so we don’t make the same mistakes other countries made.
Rita: Do you feel your peers are accepting of people with different backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender identities, religious preferences?
Natalia: As a school we try to listen to everyone and be open-minded, but we have had issues of white supremacy. A couple years ago we had swastikas drawn on our walls. We’ve had students scream in the halls “White power!” with their fists up in the air. There are students with very strong beliefs, whether conservative, liberal or independent. At Pascack Valley in general, certain students are unwilling to listen to other people. But I think our teachers do a really good job on trying to listen to both sides. We’ve had parents talk about how teachers push an agenda on us. But I know from our own experience, at PV you take two years of APUSH and my two APUSH teachers have always given the class documents of history that aren’t whitewashed and show all sides.
Isabella: Some students at my school are very accepting of whatever race, religion, sexual orientation you are, and some just aren’t, unfortunately. Some make a lot of jokes or have laptop stickers that aren’t accepting of certain groups of people. It really takes me by surprise. This is the 21st century!
Katelyn: I think students are mostly accepting at River Dell but it’s very cliquey. They’ll say, “Yes, we’ll accept who you are, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I will go out of my way to be friends; I’m still going to stay with my group of friends.”
Maeve: I recently joined the school’s Equity Team, and next year I’m going to be president of the student body. We’ve had similar issues with writing in the bathroom and changing the mascot. While we like to say we’re all very accepting, it’s difficult in Bergen County, with predominantly white students, to have a good global view.
Eamon: One thing I’ve seen is that my friends who go to different schools think if you go to Bergen Catholic, you have to be Catholic or religious to go there—you really don’t. There are people of all different religions. You have a religion class all four years, but they don’t force it on you.
Lily: The majority of my peers are very aware of social issues and care a lot about them. I’ve seen the way my peers have taken to social media and with Black Lives Matter. We had a lot of clubs like the Gay-Straight Alliance, Black Student Union and a social justice club as well. Our administration doesn’t tolerate any homophobia, transphobia, racism. I won’t speak for every student in my school, but we’re always striving to be better.
Rita: How safe do you feel at your schools? Do you worry about gun violence?
Mariel: I definitely feel safe. We have fire drills once a month and lockdown drills; we take it very seriously.
Bryan: At Ridgewood, we have an open campus policy, so if you have a free period you can leave campus and go to town and get a quick bite. I’ve never felt in danger in Ridgewood leaving school. Another level of security is all the doors are locked throughout the day and the only way you can get in is by using your proximity card. Ridgewood does a really good job keeping its students safe.
Aurora: One of the things I love about Ber- genfield is the security guards. We know them by first name. You can walk out of class and there’s a security guard right there and tell them “Hey, I don’t feel safe,” and they’ll go into immediate action.
Hayden: I feel incredibly safe at Mahwah, mainly because we took a lot of measures after the Parkland shooting that really ensured safety. Now we have double sets of doors that students and teachers with IDs can go through. We go through drills at least once a month. We know what to do if a scenario were to happen. We have a security resource officer, Officer Jack, and he’s one of the most friendly people in the school. He’s not sitting in an office all day; he genuinely feels like a human being, walking around, high-fiving kids.
Natalia: At Pascack Valley I always feel safe. We also have security at the front desk and they always make rounds on each level. There’s a breezeway where the school disconnects and we have to walk outside to get to some classes. Originally it was open so anyone could get out, but they closed it off, and now there are huge metal doors so no one can get in from the outside. All the security officers are super nice.
Katelyn: Our football field is a bit of a walk from the school, and that’s where we have our gym classes. Since it’s a public field, you’ll have people from the community walking on the track during gym class. That was a concern for a time. The loudspeakers that give announcements if there’s a lockdown aren’t loud, and it’s hard to hear by the football field, and I was once on the tennis courts by the football field for gym, and when our class was going back and getting changed, everyone was talking about the lockdown, and we didn’t hear anything about it because we were outside the whole time. They resolved that issue with the speakers, but the outside has been a concern.
Maeve: Following the Parkland shooting—one of the victims was a former resident of Woodcliff Lake. A lot of Hills students were affected by that, and it was a difficult day. They spoke to us about it, saying if we ever feel unsafe we should go to our guidance counselors.
Rita: What are your concerns about college—getting in, the cost, competition?
Mariel: I was supposed to take my ACT in June and I haven’t yet—a lot of people haven’t. If people are planning “early action” [college applications] you have to take your ACT and submit it.
Julia: I’m worried about everything, to be honest. As someone who doesn’t know where they even want to go, it’s hard especially now that [colleges] are shut down and you can’t visit them in person. I know there are virtual visits, but you can’t set foot on campus and get a feel for it.
Aurora: At my school, we normally have a day in August when we go in and your guidance counselor guides you through the application process. Knowing that we might not have that because of the current situation is worrying. A lot of the colleges are going test-optional next year and they’re not emphasizing SATs and ACTs because they understand so many tests were cancelled.
Rita: Does anybody worry that this will lead to more competition because there is one fewer criterion that colleges will be able to apply?
Lily: That was a concern of mine. A lot of people say they’ll just take a gap year because they don’t want to do online learning. A lot of colleges are keeping similar tuition prices so I can understand, if you’re not someone who benefits much from online learning, why you would take a gap year.
Katelyn: I was definitely concerned about competition before a lot of schools went test-optional. So many students are aiming for the top schools—you might think you’re doing well, then you’ll see someone else you think is doing better. I’m applying to service academies, so you need to get nominations as well as get into the school. Those nominations are limited by senators and representatives, so there are two levels of competition to get into the school.
Natalia: The applications are nerve-racking for me because I am first-generation and my parents don’t know the American college system. I’m relying on my guidance counselor. I do have an older sister and she got into NYU, but that’s because our school was helping her so much. She’s going off to her campus so I’m going to be left alone, and I don’t know what Pascack Valley is doing for back-to-school. Talking to my guidance counselor has been a little tricky. Colleges are going to be relying on our transcripts and our essays. That’s putting a lot of pressure on me because I feel I have to be an amazing writer.
Isabella: I think it’s great that schools are be- coming test-optional. I was supposed to take the ACT and it was cancelled, so I scheduled for July and then I found out that I can’t test in July. So now I have to rejoin The Hunger Games—that’s what it feels like. A college counselor told me that if I’m applying to a college and my twin is applying to the same college, and if I don’t have a test score and my twin does, then they’re going to take the twin.
Aurora: My parents didn’t go to college here, so they can’t tell me, “This is how you do it.” I like test-optional because some people are good at standardized testing but don’t have the motivation to withstand their grades throughout the school year. While you could have a twin who has a test score and you don’t, schools also look at extracurriculars. Did you do something through high school, were you always an A student? I’m in a lot of clubs, captain of my team. Now they can’t focus on my test score. It’s about “Is she dedicated, wanting to work hard in this school as a student and as a person?”
Katelyn: Even if you’re trying to sign up for a test now, it’s so difficult to get a seat at a school that’s close to you. A lot of students might not feel comfortable going to a private testing room. Last time I took the SAT, you’re in a testing room packed in close. There’s that safety issue with the pandemic.
Julia: As schools started going test-optional, I felt good about that. But there’s still a thought if schools will truly stick to that, that it’s truly optional and they’re not going to pay much attention to it—or are they going to prioritize students who took it and were able to get the score that they wanted?
Rita: What stresses you the most?
Hayden: Trying to get back to normal life in the most healthy and appropriate way. (To the others:) This is your senior year. But I’m going to be a [college] freshman. Will I be able to return to a traditional class setting, and learn as fluently as I did before, and at the same time maintain a normal and healthy life? I’m just taking it one day at a time. I try to be there for other people as well, and I recognize there’s very little we can do in this scenario other than stay healthy ourselves and not put others at risk.
Aurora: So much is changing. That on its own is stressful for me. Personally, I’m not used to being home so much. I’m used to coming home to eat dinner with my family after practice or a game. I want to be part of the world, not just see the four corners of my room. It’s the internal argument of “I want that back—I want my senior year! But at the same time I don’t want to risk myself getting sick or bringing it home or making someone else sick.”
Rita: And how are you dealing with the stresses?
Aurora: I write a lot. A friend and I are on the volleyball team, so we’ll meet up and play volleyball and get our aggression out.
Natalia: I’m in a lot of extracurriculars. We have World Cultures Club and I’m the president. The club has always felt like a family, so I take a lot of responsibility for the members of the club. I always worry about them and reach out to them. And then I stress about my GPA and if it’s good enough for college.
Maeve: I’ve been dealing with things in my personal life and things going on in the world, and it’s difficult to say if I should focus on my academics or the extracurriculars. I’m also trying to plan a way to bring unity to the school next year. I just got a job too.
Eamon: The most stressful thing is the uncertainty, not knowing when things will open up, SATs, school and trying to work around all the troubles everyone is having. The college process is very tiring. My parents are constantly trying to get me to get things done in time.
Rita: So what are you doing to manage the stress?
Eamon: I try to get things done immediately, and I also go on a lot of runs and bike rides around town. That clears my mind, and I find it very soothing.
Katelyn: You’re in competition with your friends who are always trying to see who had the highest grades. It’s more than doing your best, you’re trying to do the best in your class as well.
Rita: How are you balancing all of that?
Katelyn: I enjoy reading because it allows me to clear my mind.
Isabella: Colleges want someone who’s in a lot of clubs, has internships, does volunteering, and the thing is, we can’t do that anymore ever since March. Time is passing, but our lives are on pause. To de-stress, I’ve been looking for ways around that. For example, I’m trying to write a children’s book. I wrote a poem about bullying, and I’m trying to look for an illustrator to have it published. I’d like to donate the funds to COVID-19 relief as well. Another thing I’m doing is maintaining my website, trying to make it look cooler and get more traffic.
Mariel: For me, it’s the college process and the uncertainty of going back in September. If we don’t, it’s going to be even more stressful because I won’t be allowed to walk into a classroom and talk to my teachers about recommendations. It’s going to be a lot of juggling doing it online.
Bryan: The uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus. In the beginning we were told “two weeks,” and obviously it’s four months later. States are reopening and numbers are spiking, so is it really safe to reopen? I’m a big soccer player, and our program is trying to restart, but how am I supposed to be socially distant from another kid who is going for the same ball? I’ve been running a lot—that has helped.
Lily: My biggest stressor is the unknown of everything. I am the oldest kid, so the [college] application process is new to my family. This is a little issue, but I love going out to restaurants, and I haven’t been able to do that in a while. To deal with stress, I’ve been going on a lot more runs. And I’ve been reading more too.
Julia: My biggest stress is balancing what’s going on in the world and what you have to do for school and the college process. At the end of the school year, everything started with George Floyd—that’s all I could focus on. We would have Google Meets and I was just thinking about how I could be a part of that change. Being on the Diversity Council has helped a lot. It makes me feel I’m putting time into something that’s going to do good in our community. I also do a lot of art. The other day I did a finger painting. I’m usually a perfectionist and I do a lot of photo realism, but I just put on gloves and went for it.
Editor’s note: Special thanks to Darius Amos, Haley Longman, Kathryne McCann and Stephen Vitarbo.
By Rita Guarna