For today's seniors, every year of high school has been touched by the pandemic. The closest they got to a traditional experience — the kind that has been chronicled in countless American coming-of-age movies — was in 2019, their freshman year.

"We are the only class who doesn't really know what it's like to go to high school in a sense," says Twyla Colburn, a senior in Portland, Ore.

Twyla is one of five high school seniors NPR spoke with about what it has been like to go to high school during COVID and how they think it changed them. Though each student had a unique story, all described a high school experience that forced them to adapt, grow and appreciate the moments of relative normalcy.

Breaking out of the pandemic bubble

Julia Natali Perez, a senior at Omaha South High School in Nebraska, says she remembers feeling sad when her freshman year got cut short in the spring of 2020. But soon she was distracted by the challenges of being home all the time with her five siblings, including three older sisters who had been away at college.

"It was difficult having all of us back again at home and trying to manage that," says Julia.

Despite the house suddenly being filled with people, she felt lonely and isolated from her friends.

"I didn't see anyone ... and everybody forgot about everybody," she says. "A lot of people were in their own bubble trying to cope with everything. A lot of people had depression, personal problems, family problems and all that."

Now that Julia is in her senior year, she has a new perspective.

"I've grown so much as a person," she says. "I am more focused in school but also outside of school, getting out of my bubble and trying new things."

Using senior year to make things right

Omar Abdellall, who attends East Stroudsburg High School South in eastern Pennsylvania, chose to stay virtual during his sophomore year.

"For me, my parents are sort of on the older side and it was just a bigger risk to go in person personally," Omar says. "I don't want to say I regret it or it was a mistake, but it definitely took a toll on me in my academic career."

He says he had to completely reboot his study habits to adjust to the new virtual environment.

And some lessons didn't translate well to online learning, like a day in biology where they learned about dissecting frogs. Instead of the visceral, formaldehyde-laden experience that students would normally get in person, Omar says his class was shown slides of the frog's anatomy.

"If it was in person, I could see it in front of me and I would be like, 'Oh, this is cool. This is the heart. Oh, this is cool. This is the stomach.' And I could see it. I could move it around," he says. "But when it was online, it would be like, 'Here's the stomach. Next. Here's the heart. Next.' And they would never actually stay in my head."

Omar went back to in-person learning his junior year and says that was an adjustment too. It was overwhelming to be in a bigger environment.

"I sort of forgot exactly how to be in person," he says.

But he did eventually get used to it, and so did his classmates.

"We realized that ... this is our time to make things right with our academics, with our social life, with our community. And it was just like a skyrocket of our individual growth," he says. "This year it's time to make things right. ... Hopefully there's not another pandemic."

Excited for the return of high school traditions

Nathan Ferguson, who attends McGavock High School in Nashville, Tenn., also needed time to adjust when he went back into the classroom his junior year.

"It would get pretty crowded and it would get pretty scary. I'd find myself avoiding big crowds or at lunch, maybe sitting by myself at a table," he says.

The distance imposed by COVID, and the uncertainty once he came back, also took a toll on some of his friendships. School is where friendships thrive; when that space is taken away, those bonds can falter.

"It was weird, especially when we came back because I was seeing all these people that I used to be close with and now it felt like we were strangers," he says. "People change a lot, especially people my age. So a lot of them weren't even the same person anymore."

This year, things feel better.

"It's no longer claustrophobic," Nathan explains. "It feels good to talk to people, make new friendships, find new stuff out about people you might not have known before."

He says this year has felt the most normal out of all four years, and he's excited for the return of some of his high school's classic traditions.

"They brought back this senior courtyard, which was actually banned for the past couple of years, where seniors get to go outside and eat their lunch on picnic tables, which is super cool," he says. "They're also bringing back field trips, and homecoming, all this stuff that we were missing from previous years. It feels like it's kind of all coming together."

It's hard to feel connected to high school during a pandemic

Iksha Subba, a senior at Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women's Leadership School in Dallas, says high school didn't exactly live up to her expectations.

"High school used to be a big deal for me in middle school. But I feel like I don't really feel that connected to my school."

Iksha calls her experience bittersweet.

"Right now it's just a place I go to study to get my education."

She's applying to college now, and she hopes she'll feel more connected to wherever she ends up, though the idea of moving away makes her nervous.

"That's something I'm scared of. I think I'm scared of ... being in a new environment where I don't know a lot of people."

She's confident she'll find somewhere she belongs.

A desire to compensate for everything they missed out on

Twyla Colburn, who attends David Douglas High School in Portland, says the staff at her school worked hard to give students a fulfilling high school experience. They organized food pantries and clothing drives for families in need and took surveys on how students were doing.

But in terms of community, there was still a feeling of loss — a feeling of "whatever we're doing right now is not as good as it could have been," Twyla explains.

She says she and her classmates are approaching their last year with a different mindset than previous senior classes.

"I think that general classes of high schoolers, if they've had a really successful and really regular series of years ... it's sort of just that they are connected because they've been together. But with us, I feel like there's a certain desire to compensate for everything that we've lost."

For instance, Twyla plays the flute and saxophone, and her school band often performs at football games.

"I'm not personally someone who would normally go to a football game or want to go," she says. "But now more than ever, I've been much more looking forward to things that I wouldn't have looked forward to in freshman year just because it allows a chance to be part of the school community."

She says that newfound attitude makes her hopeful for what her class can accomplish — not in spite of the pandemic, but because of it.

"These past few years have shown us that there is nothing that is out of reach for the class of 2023. We can get through things that have been unprecedented for generations, still while juggling all the difficulties of high school, and I think that is just incredible."

For now though, she's focused on enjoying her last, and sort of first, full year in high school.

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