Virtually Alone

Grace Knudson & Victoria Willox

She crawls out of bed after a long night of watching Netflix and scrolling through social media and drags herself to her desk just two feet away. Still in her pajamas, she logs on to her first class, eyes fluttering to stay awake. It’s 8:25 a.m. Before the pandemic struck Dallas, junior Francesca Brown* would have to leave her house 45 minutes before school started to make it to class on time. Now, she just turns her camera off on live meetings to avoid getting ready for the day.

The Emotional Effect

With the COVID-19 pandemic causing nationwide school closures, ESD began online classes on March 24 to ensure the safety of students, faculty and staff. Due to the shelter-in-place order, which was partially lifted on May 1, families have been cooped up in their houses, unable to see others, unless they are six feet away and wearing a mask. Fear of getting the coronavirus now plagues the minds of millions. And students now bear constant pressure from two worlds: the outside world and the “classroom” world.

“I spend my day at my desk in my bedroom,” Brown said. “I do homework at my desk and then when I sleep, I go to my bed. Now that we’ve been doing online school for so long, it just feels like everything I’m doing is for school. I never feel like I have time to myself; my brain is always on school mode in some form.”

Throughout the school year, Brown was able to walk to classes and eat lunch with her friends. Now, she now stays up late into the night scrolling Tiktok to find relief from constant isolation and online school stress. 

“I was going to sleep at 3 a.m. every single day last week,” Brown said. “This week, I’ve been trying to like to get in bed by 12 and pass out by one, but my sleep schedule is horrible.”

Being stuck in his house with only his family members has made sophomore Harry Martin* feel incredibly alone during this time, as he is a member of many clubs and activities at school. 

“I get my energy from being around other people—that’s always been where I feel like I thrive,” Martin said. “It’s definitely been difficult—I feel like you don’t realize how good you got it until it’s gone, or when it’s gone. I’m realizing how much of an impact human interaction has on happiness and well being.” 

The pandemic has been particularly rough for seniors. The end of the school year includes many cherished traditions such as Pass It On, decorating uniforms and the senior prank. Now, seniors, including Melissa Graves*, are cooped up in their houses, graduation and prom are postponed and they are unaware if their colleges will be open in the fall.

“There is this trend where you post the last picture you took at school and a lot of them were just pictures of the hair drug testing,” Graves said. “What a lame last memory at ESD. We don’t get to make our final memories at school. I know a bunch of people who cried, and I was pretty sad too. It’s my last semester with my friends before we spread out across the country, so I want to hang out with them when I can like the last time”

Martin has constantly kept in contact with his friends throughout this time to continue to maintain the communication he once had during the school day. Like Martin, 92 percent of the student body has maintained communication with their friends during this time according to a May 11 poll of 143 students.

“I have a group of friends at some other schools and we have a weekly Zoom every Friday just to make sure we’re all doing [well],” Martin said. “I felt awkward reaching out to people at first because on text you just say ‘Hi… hello… what’s up,’ but I realized everyone is feeling alone in this situation. This definitely isn’t as good as the whole human interaction thing, but it is the best people can do.” 

The Academic Impact 

On April 20, the administration announced that ESD would still have final exams, and the grading scale would not change. The new exam policy consists of two 10 percent exams, one being project-based and the other a test. Academic Dean Dr. Eric Boberg sent out a poll to gather student input on the new policies, which students appreciated, but the administration’s decision came as a shock to many. 

“[The email] made me mad because it said, grades are the motivating factor, so ESD is going to keep them so students [will continue to] learn,” Martin said. “That’s reality, but that’s also a very twisted thing to say. There’s nothing to look forward to and I’m thinking ‘at least there won’t be exams.’ Oh wait, psych, they’re still going to give exams and regardless of all of this.”

Martin is enrolled in eight courses at ESD, including one class before school. He will take one AP exam and five non-AP exams, therefore, he will have 10, 10 percent exams to take. The online school process has made Martin feel overwhelmed, often leading him to avoid the work and procrastinate. 

“I’ll be taking breaks during the breaks in the day and then it’ll be the evening, like nighttime when I’m about to go to sleep I’ll be like, ‘Oh wait, I have so much work to do,’” Martin said. “I’m so tired at the end of each day now; I’m definitely a chronically tired person. I’m getting like zeros here and there in the new gradebook, and I’m kind of freaking out because I was working hard and I was getting decent grades and now I’m just not.”

Some seniors have not found the new school policies to impact their stress. One possibility for this is that most colleges have notified seniors that their application cannot be rescinded if there is a grade drop due to COVID-19. While this eases stress, it has also led to a lack of attending classes or submitting work with full effort.

“I’m a second semester senior, so I have not been stressed,” Graves said. “For the most part I just say I’m already into college and then don’t do things. My anxiety as far as school hasn’t really gone up because I don’t have to take the exams. I think for anyone it’s so hard to find motivation when you are at home all day, but then when you’re a senior and they say, ‘we’re not going to take back your offer for bad grades,’ you’re just like, ‘I don’t have to try.’ Then you sink into a hole of not wanting to do any of it. Plus, The teachers know we’re so checked out at this point.”

Brown, who is enrolled in three AP courses and one honors course, is now worried about how to balance studying for all of her exams that collide with each other. Traditionally, AP exams would be the week before school exams, but now with digital learning, this has been altered. The College Board, the platform incharge of AP testing, has made AP exams shorter this year and added an additional testing date to help accommodate students.

“I have AP exams to worry about; I’m going to be stressed enough,” Brown said. “It felt like a kick in the teeth to be like, ‘we heard what you had to say [in the poll] but we’re going to give you two exams now.’ Now I have one of my AP exams the same day as another exam.”

In addition to the challenges brought on by the new exam policy, Brown now struggles with time management and her work is piling up due to having both assigned in-class work and homework for all six of her courses. In comparison, 87 percent of the student body believes school work increased due to online learning from a May 11 poll of 143 students.

“So far I’ve been really, really anxious; I woke up this morning [and] was frantic,” Brown said. “It is really hard for me, especially during my first two classes, to pay attention and listen to what everybody is saying. I had a class writing assignment and I felt so scatterbrained. I could not get my thoughts straight.”

Getting the hang of spending the day at home has been very difficult for Martin who fights to stay focused throughout the day. He has felt pressure to manipulate the new online applications, so he can work on other class work or have more freetime. 

“I’m definitely guilty of doing the thing where you type in ‘reconnecting…’ and [teachers] will think, ‘oh wait, someone’s reconnecting their Wi-Fi is bad,’” Martin said. “What I’ll do is I’ll stay in the group and I’ll be listening, but I’ll be doing some other assignment without the camera on or I’ll be online watching YouTube.”

The Wellness Initiative

To ease students’ stress, English teacher Antonia Moran, Upper School Librarian Mary Jo Lyons, Physical Education Department Chair Mike Schiender and Upper School Emotional Wellness Counselor Merredith Stuelpe have created weekly videos informing students about the importance of mindfulness and meditation during this time. 

“We all sort of had some energy around it and decided that even if two or three students look at it, that’s at least two or three students that might benefit from it,” Stuelpe said. “Anything that we can do to help kids manage their stress, stay positive or give them something else to connect with is worth it. We are looking for all [of this information] to push out there.”

During this time, Stuelpe has been reminding faculty and staff members to check in on their students and communicating with parents during this time. Stuelpe has continued to meet with previously scheduled students virtually and encourages other student body members to contact her if they are struggling.

“Meeting with [students], virtually, has been really interesting because [I’ve found that] some students who felt overwhelmed or felt like they were having difficulty juggling everything and the intensity of ESD, have actually felt like this gives them like a little bit of a breather,” Stuelpe said. 

Clinical psychologist Dr. Matthew Housson has a practice in the Dallas area and tests adolescents and adults who may have learning disabilities, attention problems, autism spectrum disorders, depression or anxiety. During this pandemic, Housson has been able to work with his clients and see the effects of this situation on them.

“High schoolers are really crawling the walls,” Housson said. “They can’t see their friends, they feel very frustrated and lonely, and there’s a lot of stress. What [my practice] really has been recommending for people is that they stick to the fundamentals; make sure that everybody stays on a good sleep routine and certainly that everybody gets good exercise.” 

Housson has been helping teenagers respond to stress by teaching coping mechanisms.

“I think that the first piece of advice is know yourself and know what changes your mood,” Housson said. “I know if I meditate I feel better. I know if I pray I feel better. I know if a friend comes over and stands six plus feet away from me and we just talk I feel better. We’re also encouraging people to do things that they never had time before.”

As the school year comes to an end, Housson hopes adolescents continue to keep a positive outlook and maintain positive coping skills. 

“Some form of mindfulness exercises or prayer is really helpful,” Housson said. “A lot of people rely on their faith during uncertain times and that’s really helpful. If you’re not sure about what helps you try some of the apps like the Calm app, Insight Timer or Headspace. Try some new things and see if that works for you.”

Because Housson is a cognitive psychologist, he is focused on helping others maintain a positive approach to problems. When having a positive approach, it will prevent motivation problems which lead to depression or anxiety issues. 

“Once someone experiences hopelessness then you have to work to get out of that negative mindset,” Housson said. “The seniors have had it very hard, but they are going to graduate, they are going to go to college, there is going to be a vaccine and we are going to get on the other side of this. It’s just hard right now and there’s a lot of uncertainty about when the end is. It is discombobulating a lot of people psychologically.”

 *Names have been changed to protect students’ identities

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