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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

As Return To Classes Nears, CMS High School Students Talk About Coping With Months Of Distance

East Mecklenburg High students Gloria Boykin (left) and Lucy Smithwick posted sticky notes with encouraging messages around school before going remote.
Courtesy of Gloria Boykin
East Mecklenburg High students Gloria Boykin (left) and Lucy Smithwick posted sticky notes with encouraging messages around school before going remote.

Next week Charlotte-Mecklenburg high school students will return to classrooms for the first time in almost a year.

Over the past 11 months, they've found ways to cope with distance — whether that means moving the school newspaper online, playing bagpipes over Facebook or turning off Zoom cameras in class.

As you might expect, there’s a sense of fatigue and loss when teens talk about how their lives have changed since schools closed last March.

East Meck Body Banter notes from last school year.
Courtesy of Gloria Boykin
East Meck Body Banter notes from last school year.

"I’m someone who was like, I’m going to do everything my senior year. I’m going to go to my first football game. I’m going to go to the dances and all that," said Smrithi Tirumalapudi, a senior at East Mecklenburg High. "And, you know, not having that anymore, it makes me sad."

Instead of going to events, she’s done a lot of improvising. For instance, she and her friend Gloria Boykin lead a group called Body Banter. Last year they made posters and put sticky notes on lockers to send positive messages to classmates.

"We’ve kind of moved to our meetings are all virtual, which has kind of taken away the closeness that we had before," Boykin said.

CMS is bringing back in-person gatherings for select extracurricular activities, including sports, arts and JROTC. Officials say those connections are so important that they’re willing to risk some COVID-19 exposure, as long as safety precautions are strictly observed.

Online Clubs Aren't The Same

But most clubs remain in remote mode, and Tirumalapudi says it’s hard to generate enthusiasm.

"I think that since school is online right now, being at a computer for longer than you absolutely have to be feels like a chore," she said. "And so it’s difficult to keep people coming back week after week after week, especially when we’re struggling to adapt to being online ourselves."

And she says some activities don’t translate well. As a leader of the Gender Sexuality Alliance — formerly the Gay-Straight Alliance — she’s been active in the national Day of Silence to protest harassment of LGBTQ students. During a normal year, that means no answering questions in class or chatting with friends, often with mouths covered by tape to drive home the statement.

"It makes sense to be completely silent during a school day when you’re in person and you’re seen and that’s a powerful statement," Tirumalapudi said. "But now that we’re online and everyone has their cameras off and their mics off constantly, silence is less of a statement and more of the norm."

Blacking Out Zoom Classes

About that: High school students say turning off mics and cameras during online classes is definitely a thing. And it’s driving teachers crazy.

It may have started with teens who don’t like the way they look after weeks, then months, of sitting in front of a computer at home. But once the cameras start going off, students say it becomes awkward to be the odd person left on screen. So black screens that further isolate students and demoralize teachers have become the norm.

Requiring students to use their cameras is considered a potential privacy violation, though some schools and teachers find ways to strongly encourage camera use.

Breana Fowler, a junior at North Mecklenburg High, says she’s seen the Zoom blackouts spread.

"I’ve seen from the transition from first semester to second semester, people are really tired and they don’t want to put on their camera anymore," she said.

Strains On Mental Health

As the school board’s student advisor, Fowler has been telling the board — and thousands of viewers streaming electronic board meetings — about the mental health strain remote learning imposes on teens.

Breana Fowler, student adviser to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board.
Breana Fowler, student adviser to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board.

"I think people really need to understand that our students are mentally drained," she says. "They’re burnt out. Most of our students do not know how to deal with their mental health right now. Not only are you on the Zoom for a long period of time, they’re overloaded with work."

But despite the frustrations of remote learning, Fowler won’t go back this semester. She says a large school with older buildings don’t make for a safe environment.

Fowler does get some in-person contact through activities outside of school -- such as a softball travel team. "We keep our mask on during practice and we do more small groups," she said.

She also participates in Teen Court, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department program that lets high school students try peers on real criminal charges, with the goal of keeping minor crimes off their records. Fowler serves as a defense attorney.

"I will be there socially distanced, with only the prosecutor, judge and myself, along with the defendant that I’m with. But the jury is online," she said.

Pandemic Stops The Press ... Briefly

For student journalists, the pandemic means a flood of news — and big challenges covering it. Gabe Stanton, editor of the East Meck Eagle, says his staff was working on the third of four annual print editions when the pandemic hit. Suddenly they didn’t have access to their design software or their usual source of interviews.

"All you had to do was just go to the lunchroom, the cafeteria, and interview someone when you wanted to talk to them for a story," Stanton said.

East Meck Eagle's May 2020 edition.
East Meck Eagle's May 2020 edition.

The Eagle managed to put out one online edition in May. The lead headline: "Coronavirus cancels remainder of school year."

This year The Eagle is adapting. Like their adult counterparts, the teen journalists have Zoom staff meetings and do most of their interviews by phone or online.

"We’ve done a lot of opinion stories," Stanton said. "I think that part of the reason we’ve done that is that it’s easier to do an opinion. But also because I also think it’s definitely part of the reason we’ve done a lot of opinions is because there’s been a lot to talk about."

Stanton and his staff are also learning that when daily news developments reshape students’ lives, you can’t always wait to publish every couple of months. Now, using the digital format for news stories, "we’re writing and then editing and then publishing them to the website in a pretty quick and simple way."

COVID-19 Forces New Focus

At Providence High, 11th-grader John Schubert wishes he’d had a crystal ball when he registered for this year’s classes — right before the pandemic closed schools. He booked two Advanced Placement calculus classes and wishes he hadn’t.

Providence High School student John Schubert
Providence High School student John Schubert

"Definitely calculus and math has been the most difficult in the virtual environment," he said.

Last spring and summer, Schubert says he had time on his hands and started watching Charlotte City Council meetings. He got hooked, live-tweeting meetings, tracking policy twists and following task forces.

"I am really passionate about zoning policy and land use, urban planning. That’s really my zone," he said.

Schubert is eager to report back to Providence High on Monday. He says just seeing the building again will feel good after spending all day in his room.

But he says in some ways the forced change of pace has been a gift.

"I was always a super-strong academic student but I think I’ve realized through COVID that maybe community involvement is more what I want to prioritize and be passionate about," Schubert said.

Right now, he dreams of going to college in New York City then coming back to Charlotte to work in city planning.

John Schubert plays bagpipes in person, before the pandemic.
Courtesy of John Schubert
John Schubert plays bagpipes in person, before the pandemic.

Schubert is also staying active in outside activities, such as playing bagpipes in the Queen City Juvenile Pipes and Drums. Of course, blowing into bagpipes is not a safe in-person activity, so they get together on Facebook: "We play — obviously it can’t be perfectly synchronized, but we unmute and whatnot."

Long, Slow Return To Normal

No matter how they’re coping, CMS high school students face a long, slow return to normal. About 20,000 of them won’t return at all this school year, a number that’s been growing as teens and their parents confront the prospect of going back amid high community spread.

Roughly 29,000 others will be divided into three groups to allow for safe distancing on buses and in classrooms. The third group reports to classrooms March 8. Each group will have about four weeks of in-person classes before the school year ends.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.