More change in second semester in a pandemic, central Wis. students share experiences

As students head into spring break, many will see changes when they return, like going back to...
As students head into spring break, many will see changes when they return, like going back to school fully in-person. Students said the second semester in the COVID-19 pandemic looks very similar to the first, with a few key differences.(WSAW Emily Davies)
Published: Mar. 25, 2021 at 11:02 PM CDT
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(WSAW) - As students head into spring break, many will see changes when they return, like going back to school fully in-person. Students said the second semester in the COVID-19 pandemic looks very similar to the first, with a few key differences.

The project

NewsChannel 7 took on a special project, gathering students from all over central Wisconsin from various grades to hear what their thoughts and experiences were and are as school begins and continues over the next year. Aug. 31, 2020 was the first day of coverage looking at what students’ experiences were over the previous five months, what they are thinking about ahead of the start of school, and what they are doing to get through all of the changes. The second round aired Sept. 24, 2020, following the same group of students (plus one who could not make the first interview). The third aired Oct. 22, 2020, about two to three months into the school year depending on the school. The fourth aired just before the winter holiday break. The fifth aired March 25, 2021, about a year after the pandemic caused schools to close their doors.

Students started the school year at a variety of times, as early as Sept. 1 and as late as Sept. 14, and from a variety of approaches, with some fully in-person, some fully online, and others in some mix of that.

The students who participated are:

  • Charleze Valliere, a senior at Merrill High School
  • Lexie Durkee, a senior at Stevens Point Area High School
  • Oliver Nazari-Witt, a junior at D.C. Everest Senior High School
  • Estella Christensen, a junior at Wausau West High School
  • Julia Engebretson, a sophomore at Wausau West High School
  • Cadence Ryman, a freshman at Merrill High School
  • Connor Skarsten, an 8th-grade student at P.J. Jacobs Junior High
  • Kayla Skarsten, a 6th-grade student at Washington Elementary School in Stevens Point

Second semester

It had been a few months since NewsChannel 7 last checked in with the students on the panel, so when asked to give a general recap of their experience and how it compared to the first semester, a lot of them said it was very similar. Though there are some key differences.

“Oh boy,” thought Durkee, “It’s been pretty different. My grades aren’t exactly where they should be still and that’s more so on me than anyone else, but just senioritis is real this year, I guess. I’m just excited to get out since it’s not normal, but I definitely am going to miss high school.”

Valliere agreed, saying the “senior slide” hit hard this year.

“I typically have gotten good grades. I’m usually pretty consistent about everything, but I guess with e-learning I have been doing a little bit worse than I would be if we were fully in-person,” Connor Skarsten said, explaining that he has missed some assignments.

He said he has not seen a lot of his friends this semester and that the promise of spring break and going back in-person when he comes back has been motivating him.

“I feel like I’ll do a lot, lot better once we’re in-person,” he said.

Nazari-Witt said he has not had an issue with his grades between semesters, with some credit going to his friends.

“We like, help each other stay on task,” he said. “We say like, ‘Hey, did you do this assignment? Did you do that assignment?’ So we don’t miss things, stuff like that. So, I’d say I’m really lucky in that aspect.”

“I have maintained a 4.0, but it was definitely harder to do virtual; I can admit that now because I’m fully back, but I would not have admitted that a couple of months ago,” Engebretson said. She explained she would not have been able to admit it because she did not realize how much easier it was for her to learn in-person until Wausau School District allowed them to come back.

“I didn’t picture it to go as well as it has. I mean, obviously, there’s been some challenges, like we haven’t, there’s too many of us to keep six feet apart,” Engebretson continued. She noted she has not been quarantined at this point, but she that her whole school experience has improved by being back in-person.

Math was something several students mentioned as being difficult to learn virtually. Questions often are asked over email, which may not be answered right away, with follow-up questions also more tedious to ask. Engebretson said in live classes, it is hard to let the teacher know that you have a question, and interrupting “just seems rude,” and complicates the whole class.

Christensen said she has not had a lot of trouble keeping up her grades but has noticed a difference in her ability to learn more quickly being back in-person.

“I find it’s way easier to stay engaged in my classes when I’m constantly there every week and not having that big break in between, like the week on, week off,” she said.

Durkee said that kind of constant change in schedule has personally affected her. SPASH is going back fully in-person after spring break and while she is excited in some ways, like learning in person and being able to see friends, she said that is yet another change in her schedule this past year. She added some students in her school are not for going back in-person, largely for the health concerns. She and other students have family members who would be vulnerable if they contracted COVID-19.

Nazari-Witt’s school is also going back fully in-person after the break. He said he would not say he is excited about the change. He has gotten used to the hybrid model and it allowed him to have more flexibility with his work and extracurricular activities. He expects the workload to increase and explained with all of his activities, that could keep him up until midnight regularly doing homework.

“I’m not really excited for the additional load on my time, but I am excited to see some of my friends who I haven’t seen in a long time,” he said.

For those who have been in-person the majority of the year, like Valliere and Ryman, they said the second semester has not changed much compared to the first semester. Though, Valliere noted the workload seems a little heavier and there seem to be fewer people having to quarantine. They said when teachers have to quarantine, that can be a challenge as their teachers become less available, but they have had a more stable school year.

Social and mental wellness

Small clues in students’ body language, tone, and conversation seemed to change in all of the students from the first semester to the second, with some seemingly in better moods and a little less stressed and others that seemed to have things weighing on them more heavily. Many of the students who were not fully in-person, said their mental wellbeing was not where it should be, with the exception of one student, but we will explain that in a bit.

There were a variety of factors at play. Students who had more access to their friends and social circles said their overall quality of life has improved, and the ones with larger circles currently were often ones back in-person in school. Nearly all students who have had to do virtual learning in some capacity have also noted the challenges and frustrations it poses for learning, but also for connecting with other people. By being in-person, many of those issues have gone away, their learning and grades improved too. While some still have anxiety about contracting COVID-19 or more specifically, spreading it to vulnerable loved ones, much of the fear has relaxed.

The most relaxed was the one student who has been fully vaccinated.

Vaccine availability

Most of the students were not eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccines, and while some did not feel like their availability impacted them, others have noticed some changes.

Nazari-Witt is fully vaccinated because he works at a retirement community.

“My social life,” he began, “I would say has expanded greatly.”

His parents are not as worried about him contracting COVID-19. On top of that, his family is fully vaccinated too.

“So, as a whole,” he continued. “I’d say, we just feel a lot more, like safe, I guess. Like it’s sort of a burden off our shoulders. The virus is definitely not gone, but the danger for my family, at least, has sort of diminished. Being able to go out and see friends and stuff has just improved our quality of life overall, I’d say.”

While none of the other students have felt quite the same liberty as the vaccine rolls out, Kayla Skarsten said her teacher got vaccinated and noticed her teacher is a little more relaxed. Her grandparents are also vaccinated.

“It feels good knowing that they have a very, very, very small chance of getting it and they’re going to be safe and that we can go over there and see them regularly,” Connor Skarsten, her brother, said.

Durkee is feeling more hopeful too.

“My mom is very high-risk and so, her being able to get that vaccine is definitely going to help,” she said. “It hasn’t impacted too much yet, but I think in the future it will.”

“It has been a big change for me,” Engebretson began, “because that side of the family that I hadn’t seen in a year, we went ice fishing with them because they had gotten their first dose and they were just so excited. We’re like, let’s see, let’s see each other! Let’s give each other a hug! My parents were crying. It was just super emotional and super exciting.”

What a difference a year makes

There were a lot of shared experiences in the first year of the pandemic, but exactly how it hit was unique to everyone. “Weird” was one of the ways students described thinking about the totality of the last year.

“That is so crazy to think about that that was last year already,” Engebretson reflected.

“It’s so, like, almost surreal in a way,” Ryman thought.

“We started with like a full quarantine, which that seems like forever ago, but we’re still living it where it’s not as strict, but it’s still not ‘normal’ per se,” recalled Valliere.

“Because like, the vaccines are out and quite a few people are already vaccinated and we’re, like, almost done,” continued Ryman.

“I have no idea how we went through it, but I’m also like, amazed that we did,” Engebretson contemplated.

Christensen had a particularly sharp memory of when the pandemic caused schools to close.

“So, school shut down on the thirteenth (March 13) last year, my birthday is the fourteenth, so it was, it was very prominent,” she exclaimed. “I knew that exact date when everything shut down!”

She said when her birthday came this year, she felt a little frustrated.

“Oh, I feel like I wasted a year. I feel like I didn’t get to do anything. I feel like I lost so much,” she recalled thinking. “Then, like, looking back at some of like, people were posting pictures for my birthday and they were over the year and I kind of saw, like, oh, well I actually got to go hiking with my friends a lot this year, which is something I typically wouldn’t have done.”

Engebretson, who was on the same interview call as Christensen agreed.

“We just played cribbage (meaning recently before the interview), and I was like, we would have just turned the TV on, but we were so sick of the TV that we played cribbage and now we all want to play cribbage sometime,” Engebretson smiled.

“I think it really just like, opened my eyes to all of the different things I tried because so many things weren’t available,” Christensen said.

Nazar-Witt looked back at the bigger picture.

“I’ve sort of been thinking about how a year or two ago we still had problems. So like, even though we didn’t have COVID, the world wasn’t perfect,” he began. “Even after COVID is controlled, we’re still going to have problems. There’s still going to be stuff that gets in your way. Through COVID I think we’re learning how to overcome stuff like that and, like, adapt.”

“It is sad that we did have to go through something like that, but finding the positives, I did so many new things this year because of the situation we were in,” Christensen ended.

“I’m not grateful that the pandemic hit, but grateful for some memories that came with it,” Engebretson concluded.

“COVID is probably going to make us stronger and we’re going to be able to get through stuff like that easier,” noted Nazari-Witt.

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