After Senn High School student Davion Holmes was named captain of the football team, and won a spot on the varsity basketball team, too, the lifelong athlete dreamed of spending his junior year competing on the court and gridiron with his friends and teammates.
But the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be a formidable rival, crushing the athletic seasons for both sports at the Chicago high school. These days, when Holmes is not behind his laptop in a Zoom classroom, he’s earning extra cash working at a neighborhood Wendy’s restaurant.
“They took away all of the joy, and left us with nothing but homework,” said Holmes, who despite facing the disappointment of having his athletic experiences upended during the pandemic, remains hopeful that he still may be able to salvage the tail-end of his high school years.
“I have a lot of motivation, especially because my mom is a nurse, and she’s been working hard on the front lines throughout the pandemic, and we’re kind of competitive, so it makes me want to do better,” Holmes said.
Nearly one year after the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, students across Chicago and the suburbs say when it comes to high school, the thrill is gone, with simple pleasures such as huddling with friends in the hallways and catching up over lunch in the cafeteria displaced by a dystopian landscape of remote learning and virtual extracurriculars.
Some high schools outside of Chicago have reopened classrooms to offer limited in-person instruction, but student attendance overall has been abysmal. Many teens have concluded that as everything they cherished about high school is now forbidden, they might as well get some extra sleep, and sign on to remote learning from their bedrooms.
After 11 months of remote learning, and what many teens describe as the soul-crushing disappointment of canceled after-school activities, experts say a burgeoning number of teens — some of whom have never before faced mental health issues — are now struggling with anxiety and depression due to heightened levels of stress and social isolation.
Still, the following stories shared recently by a dozen high school students from Chicago and the suburbs provide a glimmer of hope that for some, the pandemic-era heartbreak might forge a generation of resilient young adults who will be better equipped to deal with life’s twists and turns.
‘We went our whole lives preparing and being excited for it and then to be let down by this pandemic … It’s been hard’
For high school athletes seeking a college scholarship, having a brilliant senior season can be critical for attracting offers. But Illinois has been more aggressive than most states in curtailing youth sports during the pandemic, labeling some, for much of the school year, as too risky to play.
One of them was football.
While every other Midwestern state put on a fall football season, Illinois did not. That left Taven Washington, 18, a running back at Plainfield East, in a tough spot.
He had been speaking to coaches at Division 1 programs before the season and thought he stood a good chance at landing a scholarship. But when he sat idle in the fall, he could only watch as school after school filled their recruiting classes.
“My overall mental state, it definitely took a hit (from the shutdown),” he said. “I’m not going to lie. I think it did that for a lot of people.”
His mood improved considerably when football finally got the green light to begin its season in March, and Washington hopes a strong performance might yet win him a place in a college program.
Kyle Franklin, 17, an Immaculate Conception running back from Bellwood, tells a similar tale. He drew interest from Big 10 and Pac-12 teams before the pandemic, he said, but that evaporated when the fall season was postponed.
“They just, I wouldn’t say disappeared, but that’s basically what it was,” he said.
He kept training, though, even when he was sure the high school season was lost for good, and got his reward when he learned he’d be able to take the field with the Knights for one last campaign.
“I’ve always been positive regardless of whether we were going to have a season or not,” said Franklin, who ultimately signed with Indiana State. “My determination to get better is a lot stronger. My work ethic is a lot (sturdier), not only to work out by myself but also telling my teammates, ‘Hey, let’s go to the field, let’s work on our plays’ — just being a leader.’ ”
Twins Rianna and Bianca Tovar, 17, seniors who attend Hancock High School on Chicago’s Southwest Side, lost their soccer season last year when COVID-19 disrupted spring sports. They continued to play with their club team but had to shut down entirely over the winter when indoor fields closed.
Add to that CPS schools eschewing in-person learning, and their senior year hasn’t exactly gone as planned.
“It’s much like soccer, where we went our whole lives preparing and being excited for it and then to be let down by this pandemic,” Bianca Tovar said. “It’s been hard.”
‘Thinking about college is kind of like the light at the end of the tunnel’
When Senn High School senior Isabella Chamberland reflects on the past 11 months, she takes pride in having overcome a mental health crisis that began shortly after COVID-19 shut down school, and canceled her favorite activities, including playing on the volleyball team and singing in the choir.
“The beginning of the pandemic was the lowest point of my life … it was really difficult, because I felt unmotivated, and I was anxious about the virus,” said Chamberland, 17, who says teletherapy was key to her recovery, and led her, “to find joy in the small things in life.”
“I also started doing yoga again, and going for walks, which helped me get back the endorphin rush I’d gotten from playing volleyball,” Chamberland said.
One silver lining to the pandemic was all of the forced isolation gave her more time for writing, which led her to launch an online music magazine, Sound Spaghetti, which has now become an official student club at Senn, Chamberland said.
Being limited to remote learning from her family’s home in Rogers Park has also given Isabella plenty of time to fill out college applications — she’s applied to 19 schools so far — and allowed her to further explore her interest in gender studies.
“I’ve turned in all of my applications already, and thinking about college is kind of like the light at the end of the tunnel,” Chamberland said, adding: “I really want to study the things I’m passionate about.”
‘I just make my own audience’
Students who participate in speech, an activity that combines drama and oratory, have been able to continue this school year, albeit over the internet. Instead of delivering emotional monologues and duets to a live panel of judges, they must summon their best performances while looking into a webcam.
“Dueting is so frustrating when it comes to online,” said Jaylah Hogg, 17, a junior at Thornton Township High School in Harvey. “Wi-Fi at my house is pretty good but my partner’s isn’t. So it’s like I’m trying to time her lines in my head because she’s blanking out when she’s talking. Sometimes the judges do hold that against us.”
But it hasn’t been all bad. One of Hogg’s teammates, Yalari Trice, a 17-year-old junior, has compensated for the lack of live spectators by setting up her teddy bears behind her camera (“I just make my own audience,” she said). Another, Ashanti Matthews, 18, has found that speech competitions conducted over the internet have helped her streamline the demands of senior year.
“It does save me a lot of time,” she said. “Speech tournaments can be very long. Online works really well with my schedule because it allows me to do more work, scholarships, school essays. It’s a lot to manage, so I feel doing it online this year has been very beneficial.”
‘I loved that there was always something planned after the school day’
After nearly a year of remote learning, Deerfield High School freshman Ben Segall, 15, said he is excited that the school is expected to finally welcome students back into the building for a hybrid program later this month.
Even so, Ben recalls when his eighth grade classes at Caruso Middle School abruptly moved online last March, aside from missing the remainder of the volleyball season, he wasn’t terribly disappointed.
“It was more relaxed, and middle school was almost over, so school was easier, and homework was easier, so I was OK with it,” Ben said. “But by May, boredom started to set in, and being able to see a few of my friends was a plus.”
Ben said he also kept busy with a summer gig as a camp counselor-in-training at the local park district, where one of his tasks was making sure a pack of kindergartners kept their masks on and remained socially distanced.
While Ben said remote learning has made it tougher for freshmen to meet new friends, he said being a member of cross-country team last fall — one of the few sports that was not canceled — has been the highlight of his freshman year.
“I loved that there was always something planned after the school day,” Ben said. “I had a couple of close friends on the team, and the cross-country community is really kind to each other.”
‘It’s definitely been really lonely’
Even though she hates waking up early, Deerfield High School junior Ariella Bernstein, 17, said before the pandemic hit, she, “loved school, and was excited to go every single morning.”
“Knowing everything I’m missing, and that can never be replaced, is really upsetting,” said Bernstein, who said she was lucky to be able to play on the tennis team last fall, but says her other activities, including student council, peer helpers and the Israel Club, were moved online.
“Remote clubs are really not the same as they are in person,” Bernstein said.
“I know friends who had all As and Bs for two years, and now they’re getting Cs, or failing classes, because they have no motivation, and they’re distracted, so they turn off their cameras and go back to sleep … it’s definitely been really lonely,” she said.
Now, with the high school reopening in the coming weeks, Bernstein is cautiously optimistic she might still be able to enjoy the final few months of her junior year.
“I’m not sure what to expect, or if it will be a normal experience, but I’m really excited to be back to waking up, and actually going to school, which will be a nice change,” she said.
‘Look on the plus side, and be grateful’
As an enthusiastic member of the Chicago Blackhawks Special Hockey team, Naperville student Jackie Boland is not a big fan of the pandemic era’s virtual practices.
“Even when we’re on the ice, we have to keep a safe distance, and it’s very confusing,” said Boland, 20, a special education student enrolled in Indian Prairie School District 204′s STEP vocational program.
“I’m still having fun, but we don’t get to scrimmage, and we don’t get to play games,” Boland said.
Whether its school or hockey, like many students, Boland said she prefers “being in person, because with the whole online thing, I’m just not getting what I need.”
“Everything has been different, but I keep telling myself, I have to deal with what I have … to look on the plus side and be grateful.”
‘I’m OK, but I see a lot of high school athletes that the pandemic has really affected’
Back at Senn High School in the Edgewater neighborhood, Davion Holmes is staying focused on making the honor roll in anticipation of applying to Wilberforce, Ohio-based Central State University, one of the oldest Black-administered institutions of higher education in the nation.
And with some of the recent updates to the Illinois High School Association’s COVID-19 guidelines, Holmes said he remains hopeful, albeit realistic, about finally resuming his high school athletic career in the months ahead.
“It sounds like we possibly might do our season, but everything has been so unpredictable during the pandemic,” Holmes said. “I’m OK, but I see a lot of high school athletes that the pandemic has really affected. … They were stars of the basketball team, and now they’re struggling with remote learning, and the only thing that gives them motivation has been taken away.”
“I didn’t want to have to live through a pandemic, but I worked through it, and that’s something I’ll be able to tell my kids and grandkids someday,” he added.
Original article: chicagotribune.com