When Haley Strange thinks about the last day she spent inside her high school, one moment sticks out.

“I remember, like, the last day, sitting in the cafeteria, and I coughed. And so many people looked at me and I was like, ‘please stop looking,’” she recalled. “‘I just have a cold.’”

It was March 10, 2020 and the threat of COVID-19 had become real. By the end of the school day, Strange's home city, Framingham, had shut down school buildings and decided to start teaching students remotely. That same scenario played out in communities across the country, wreaking havoc on the lives of educators, parents and, especially, students.

One year later, GBH News checked in with high school seniors across Massachusetts who we are following in a year-long series, COVID and the Classroom. Strange and the others sharing their experiences with us were juniors when their schools shut down, and many have yet to go back. They’ve endured the monotony of a senior year experienced through a screen; the loss of traditions, opportunities and time with friends; and for some, the heartbreak of illness and death.

Throughout the year, these students have provided a window into their lives by sharing video diaries recorded on their mobile phones. Their updates tell a shared story of teenagers starting the year with a sense of optimism that has given way to fatigue.

"You just wake up, do school, repeat," said Laura Nelson, a senior at Marlborough High School.

Before school started in September, Sam Gamber, also a Marlborough High senior, offered this approach to the year ahead: “Still gotta see the positives everywhere, that’s my job as a drum major.”

Six months later, that enthusiasm has faded.

“I guess in terms of, like, mental health, I’ve kind of gone down a bit,” she said in a video diary recorded March 1.

That day her school reopened for in-person classes, and Gamber said just being on campus made her feel more motivated. But it hasn’t erased the impact of long months spent in front of a computer screen.

“The monotony of it, like, the constant repetition of the same thing over and over, that was starting to get on me,” she said. “And I think it's going to take a little bit to clear that up, because I'm just not in the same place that I was at the beginning of the year.”

"The monotony of it, like, the constant repetition of the same thing over and over, that was starting to get on me. And I think it's going to take a little bit to clear that up, because I'm just not in the same place that I was at the beginning of the year."
Sam Gamber, senior at Marlborough High School

The impact has been uneven, but COVID has, one way or another, affected all the students’ lives and, sometimes, their dreams.

“I had a nightmare where I was surrounded by people and they had COVID. And then I had to go home and I gave it to my family. And these are the fears that I deal with all the time,” said Thomas White, a senior at Boston Latin School.

White has spent most of the year inside his family’s South Boston home, logged onto classes via a laptop perched on a fold-up table. He has been careful to take precautions against COVID and struggles to understand how others can be cavalier about it.

“Some of my friends have changed,” he said. “And I've had to make choices about who I consider my friends because of the choices they make with COVID, which I think have been unfortunate.”

For Anne Laurie Pierre, a senior at Everett High School, COVID is not an abstract threat. Her father contracted the disease early on in the pandemic, and last spring he passed away. Her mother also had COVID, and though she recovered, she is now hospitalized as she undergoes treatment for leukemia.

“That's definitely changed me, because I'm really used, I'm used to having my mother here with me, like, in the house all the time,” she said. “This year was a bit different.”

Pierre has picked up added responsibilities at home, caring for younger siblings and sometimes logging off of remote classes early in order to get to work on time.

Despite the hardships, she said she doesn’t regret this past year. It’s been an important one for raising awareness about racial disparities and her own efforts to expand conversations about race at Everett High.

“I learned a lot about myself and my strength and who I am," she said. "A lot of people had a lot of awakenings within themselves.”

"I learned a lot about myself and my strength and who I am. A lot of people had a lot of awakenings within themselves."
Anne Laurie Pierre, senior at Everett High School

Even as her school remains fully remote, Pierre is hopeful she and her classmates will gather for end-of-year celebrations.

Several students expressed their hope for an in-person graduation or even a prom. But not everyone is invested in senior traditions.

“I feel like I should be more bummed than I am, but I think it's just like, whatever, like, it happened how it happened, like, it's not a super big deal, like, worse things could have happened,” said Strange.

Strange, too, is dealing with a family health crisis. Her mother was hospitalized in October after a stroke, but because of COVID restrictions, Strange was not able to visit her until the middle of February. Her concern about her mother, she said, overshadowed the loss of her senior year.

“I was more focused on her and like getting through school and still completing my schoolwork ... and just focusing on myself and my family and my friends, because anything can happen,” she said. “Like, just cherishing moments I have with them.”

Strange has chosen to finish the school year online, even though she had the option to return to school. This month Framingham High began bringing students back to campus, but Strange is skeptical other students will follow safety protocols.

Eventually, however, Strange hopes she’ll return to her high school — as a history teacher. She’s already thinking about what she might tell future students about being a high school senior during a pandemic.

Nothing exciting happened, but, you know, like, I was just in my house all the time,” she said. “But I'm going to have to teach that to them. Like, that's crazy.”

Hear more from the high school seniors GBH News is following this year for our COVID and the Classroom series in the video above produced and edited by Greg Shea.