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‘I almost gave up’: A year in the life of Maryland students during the pandemic

A year ago, the lives and education of Maryland youths were upended when, abruptly, schools closed. Children had to cope with the consequences.

The Baltimore Sun interviewed more than a dozen students, ages 8 to 18, about their year of learning in a pandemic. Brothers from Frederick County were sent to relatives in Montana so they could attend high school in person. Highlights for a 9-year-old from Towson are the friends he made in a private learning pod and the fort he built in his neighborhood’s woods. A 10th grader at Perry Hall High School delivered her lines for a school play to a computer in her bedroom.

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One thing most remember with the clarity of a movie that replays in their head is the last day of school in March 2020, a snapshot frozen, as 9/11 or John F. Kennedy’s assassination was for previous generations. The details of the day stand out: the meeting at a friend’s locker, the discussion of COVID-19 with a science teacher, the last lacrosse practice.

What happened since then has defined who they are now. Much was lost in the past year, though sometimes much was found.

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Juggling Zoom and babysitting

It happens nearly every day. When 16-year-old Sharon España-Montes signs on for classes at City Neighbors High School, five brothers and sisters are trying to connect to their schools at the same time. The internet crashes. Or one of the household’s three children under the age of 5 starts to cry, needing a diaper change, food or someone to play with.

After school, Sharon participates in an online youth program that teaches activism and art, and she’s involved with Mi Espacio, a leadership group for Latino high school students. But even then, the 10th grader needs to help out at home. Her responsibilities in the crowded rowhouse in Baltimore’s Barclay neighborhood have made online school less about learning and more about triage.

She says remote learning has opened opportunities to join clubs easily from home. But she’s felt anxiety while juggling Zoomclasses with chores. She wants to return to school in person.

Sharon Espana-Montes, 16, comforts her brother, Liam, 4, after he fell while playing outside their home. Sharon, a sophomore at City Neighbors High School, wants to return to in-person learning, but is afraid of bringing home COVID-19 to her siblings.
Sharon Espana-Montes, 16, comforts her brother, Liam, 4, after he fell while playing outside their home. Sharon, a sophomore at City Neighbors High School, wants to return to in-person learning, but is afraid of bringing home COVID-19 to her siblings. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

“I’m stuck inside, I’m taking care of my younger siblings and they always cry and scream,” Sharon said. “I almost gave up.”

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Amid the stress, she says, she’s gained weight and lost some hair.

Sharon immigrated to Baltimore from Mexico three years ago with her family and began studying English in eighth grade. The teen was earning good grades until schools closed, and even became a member of the National Honor Society.

She struggles to finish homework, working past midnight and still needing to ask for extensions. When her 1-year-old sister wakes up in the night, the teen is sometimes on duty for several hours.

“Sometimes teachers scold me and tell me, ‘Why didn’t you do your work?’” Sharon said.

When school was in person, she would take a five-minute walk to the bus stop, where she had quiet time to do some homework.

Going back to school would mean being free from distractions, having a chance to socialize with other students and being able to complete her work.

Her adviser at City Neighbors, teacher Melissa Harris, describes Sharon as a force of nature.

“She somehow superhumanly manages to juggle everything that is on her plate,” Harris said.

Sharon says that in the next year she wants to focus on improving her English and studying subjects that align with her dream. She hopes to one day become an aerospace engineer or computer scientist.

Two brothers, two school experiences

The COVID-19 pandemic may have upended many hallmarks of normalcy for Baltimore County students like Logan Bates. But in some ways, the 11-year-old’s first day as a middle schooler this fall seemed, well, ordinary.

He did feel a little nervous about keeping straight his new online class schedule, and many of his classmates’ faces peering back at him from the computer screen were unfamiliar.

Still, friendships soon blossomed in breakout rooms, and Logan’s mom noticed the sixth grader was happy to linger with his schoolwork even after teachers dismissed kids from their devices for the day. Logan gushed about his assignments such as the slideshow presentation he made on Poseidon, the Greek god of water and horses.

For Logan’s big brother Brayden, the school year hasn’t been nearly as rosy.

The seventh grader has struggled with virtual learning and can’t seem to replicate the structure he had in a school building, his mother Marie Bates said. Frequently, the 12-year-old logs off early from his computer or remarks that he “hates” school. And Marie has stopped enforcing lunchtime so that Brayden can break up the day with a bike ride.

While his younger brother’s favorite subject this year is Spanish, the opposite is true for Brayden.

“I don’t understand it,” Brayden said, adding that he sometimes asks Logan for help. Logan quizzes him on vocabulary, giving options for what each word could mean. The study system works “a little,” Brayden says, but it’s not perfect.

Brayden’s favorite subjects these days are history and physical education. He enjoyed a recent lesson on Genghis Khan — the leader of something he can’t quite recall. And a gym teacher has taken special care to encourage Brayden to keep his grades up so that he can play sports when they officially resume.

Some of Brayden’s instructors have seemed a little scattered this year, Marie said. Brayden recently found himself defending his grade in a course after a teacher emailed his mom to say he had low marks. In the end, it was discovered the teacher had mixed up the seventh grader with another student.

Early in the fall, Brayden conceded, “I never thought I’d say this, but I hate this and I’m ready to go back,” his mother recalled.

“It’s different, not being able to work with people and teachers,” Brayden said.

The boys say there are perks of virtual learning that they’ll miss when they return to Arbutus Middle in the coming weeks. Logan has enjoyed attending school from the comfort of his home — on his couch, in his room or from his bed.

“It makes me comfortable, but also at the same time focused,” Logan said.

And Brayden said he’ll miss the piping hot lunches that he can enjoy at home.

Still, both boys are thrilled about returning to the brick-and-mortar building where they can resume in-person instruction. Then, the only source of anxiety will be for Logan, who will face first-day-of-middle-school jitters again. His biggest concern will be how to open his first locker.

Reckoning with a year lost

Even in the best of times, Naqwaun Whitaker had a hard time focusing at school. Renaissance Academy, as “Quan” describes it, is locked down and full of police. But the school was also a refuge, a place that provided teachers who gave him extra help when he was confused and falling behind.

Since the start of the pandemic, those important tethers have become mere threads, two teachers and a mentor who have kept in touch.

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For Quan Whitaker, a student at Baltimore's Renaissance Academy, online learning has meant using his cell phone to attend class. That has not gone well.
For Quan Whitaker, a student at Baltimore's Renaissance Academy, online learning has meant using his cell phone to attend class. That has not gone well. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

For the moment, the 17-year-old sophomore is staying with a friend in West Baltimore’s Lexington neighborhood, but he is just as often on the East Side with a relative. It has been this way for the past few years, moving from one place to another, not quite sure of what is coming next. His father is in jail, his mother died in 2017 of diabetes and a younger brother died after an asthma attack a year ago.

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School, with its reading and writing assignments, math problems and science questions, now comes through his phone. Renaissance staff gave Quan a laptop, but living here and there means there’s no reliable internet.

“I try but it is bad. This morning when I woke up I rolled over,” he said of his lack of motivation to sign on to classes.

He says he attended much more often when classes were held in the school building, though he admits he seldom stayed for a full day.

“If I had the option, I would repeat this entire year,” he said, acknowledging he’s made little progress. “Now it is time for me to get ready for the real world, and I am not ready.”

His mentor, Fareeha Waheed, hopes his wishes will be heard.

“I continue to be so inspired and impressed by Quan’s hope and resilience in the face of constant adversity. He’s experienced things as a high schooler that few adults have yet to experience. Quan’s story is one of heartbreak but also hope,” she said.

Quan’s struggles have included scoliosis, a spinal condition that required surgery and more than three months of rehabilitation in 2019. He still has some physical problems after surgery, but he’s more hardy and a bit bolder.

Through the past year he has turned to writing regularly in a journal as a way to pound out the depression and uncertainty that can make his head swirl.

In an essay, Quan encouraged students like him to face depression rather than run away. His teacher posted it on Twitter.

“I am writing this for other students who are going through what I am going through. I want them to know that you don’t have to give up.”

Leaning against a tree, Quan said this coming year he would stop skipping school and try to stay away from people who divert his attention.

“I feel like by the end of this year I am going to do something. … I don’t need anybody to follow me to be my own leader. You can make your own choices.”

Grateful for what’s been gained

The early weeks of the pandemic felt like a fever dream to Baltimore teen Mahsati Moorhead. Her family faced a house fire, the loss of a beloved uncle to COVID-19 and the sting of isolation as they quarantined.

The 17-year-old says she is thankful to count several highlights during a year pocked with lows. Mahsati helped lead a Black Lives Matter demonstration at her school during the summer. When her mother’s work took the family to Mexico for nearly three months, the senior was able to attend Baltimore School for the Arts remotely. And she has been accepted to two of her top colleges — Howard University and Parsons School of Design.

Still, the pandemic has cost Mahsati a year of cultural and educational milestones that, in a normal year, teenagers collect like pearls on a string.

Mahsati "Sunny" Moorhead, 17, a senior at Baltimore School for the Arts, in a photo taken last summer after she helped organize a Black Lives Matter march. She's focusing on being grateful as she nears graduation, despite experiences lost to the pandemic.
Mahsati "Sunny" Moorhead, 17, a senior at Baltimore School for the Arts, in a photo taken last summer after she helped organize a Black Lives Matter march. She's focusing on being grateful as she nears graduation, despite experiences lost to the pandemic. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

“I feel like remote school has been a blessing and a curse,” Mahsati said. “It’s a blessing to go on with my education, but a curse because it’s my senior year.”

Mahsati’s junior and senior proms were canceled, along with a class trip to London. And remote learning has stymied her final year of studying stage design and production.

Instead of producing the traditional senior shows, Mahsati’s class put on a sound-only radio play and is now staging a play via videoconference. The teen is in charge of picking out props — which involves a teacher walking through the school’s prop room with a camera so Mahsati can make her selections from home.

“Weird is the only way to explain it,” she said of school. “I don’t really feel happy or sad, I just feel lost.”

These days, Mahsati and her family still take extra care to protect themselves against the virus. They wear gloves when grocery shopping, double mask and wipe down packages and food coming into the home. And they’re limiting contact with other people to a small pod of trusted friends.

Mahsati is interested in studying fashion photography, but family members are tired of posing for photos. She’s been practicing instead with still lifes.

The teen says she longs for the days when she and friends would go to Dunkin’ before racing up the street to class. She misses the lazy afternoons spent hanging out at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Mahsati says gratitude is now her North Star as she prepares to graduate. She worries she could lose herself if she lingers too long on the “hard stuff” she faced this year.

“I want to remember that feeling of running late to school, running through every light to get there,” Mahsati said. “I want to remember the feeling of being a kid.”

Discovery brings positive change

By her account, Breanna Hackerman had spent the first part of her ninth grade year at Reisterstown’s Franklin High School struggling to contain her twin obstacles to learning: the random thoughts that flitted through her brain, leaving the day’s lessons a blur, and her growing anxiety.

So last March, Breanna was digging into schoolwork, desperate to salvage her failing grades just days before the end of the quarter. She was facing a terrible head cold and a coming Spanish exam when word started to spread that the governor was closing schools the next day because of the coronavirus.

How would she work online all day without breaks to see close friends? Would she remain caught in the cycle that had marked her first year of high school?

Breanna Hackerman, 16, a sophomore at Franklin High School, has improved her grades during the pandemic as she discovered some of the things that were holding her back. "This pandemic saved me academically," Hackerman says.
Breanna Hackerman, 16, a sophomore at Franklin High School, has improved her grades during the pandemic as she discovered some of the things that were holding her back. "This pandemic saved me academically," Hackerman says. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

She says she would stay home from school when she felt depressed, but that meant “I miss out on work. And then my anxiety gets really high because I have all this work.”

Breanna thought being cooped up at home wasn’t going to help.

She managed to pass ninth grade, but by October, she was struggling with math and her old demons.

In school, she says, she was always distracted while in class. Everything was in focus except the teacher. She would lock in on the kid chewing gum in the next seat, or the birds outside.

Online was no better.

“I didn’t understand anything. My grades were falling and I just didn’t get it,” Breanna said. She turned to her cellphone to play a game called Subway Surfers, while events in her online classroom rambled along on her laptop.

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An epiphany: Her brain filtered those extraneous thoughts while jumping and dodging endless obstacles in the game. Breanna could hear what her teacher was saying, and somehow it would stick. Her mother, too, says she is similarly more efficient when she is multitasking.

With a change in medication, Breanna and her mother say her depression is more controlled. And she’s found a new passion to push her forward. She has begun volunteering with the fire department and wants to become an emergency medical technician.

She is now getting A’s and B’s, better than she has ever done in her school career. She says she hopes to amass enough credits to graduate a year early.

“I have definitely been able to improve myself,” she said. “Things do happen and I do fall behind,” but now she knows she can “get myself back up and do what I need to do.”

Given her new success, she says she plans to keep taking classes online for as long as that remains an option. The question, she says, is how she will make the transition next fall if she has to return to Franklin High School.

Stephanie García is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities. Follow her @HagiaStephia

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