Almost exactly one year ago, the pandemic caused a cascade of school and university closures, sending 9 out of 10 students home as the coronavirus raced through the United States and the rest of the world.
By Labor Day, 62% of U.S. students were still learning virtually, according to the organization Burbio. That number dropped significantly during the fall and rose in the winter as COVID-19 surged. And today, just under 1 in 4 public school students attends a district that still hasn't held a single day of in-person learning.
Colleges have seen widespread disruption, too: In the fall, only about 20% of four-year colleges offered any classes in person. And while that number has come up a bit for the spring semester, most college students — even if they live on campus — are taking classes virtually.
It may take years to understand what has been lost this year, and if history is any guide, it may take years to recover. There are mounting concerns about lost learning, social and emotional scars, and declining enrollment.
In our reporting over the past year, we've talked with hundreds of students and professors and parents and teachers about the massive disruption to their learning, their careers and their lives. This week, we checked back in with three of them — a teacher, a student and a parent — to find out what they are thinking and what they need now. Here are their stories:
Robin Nelson is a first-grade teacher in Jacksonville, Fla. In March 2020, right after school shut down, she broke down in tears as she told us how much she missed her students: "I had one little girl and her family that live in the neighborhood drive by, and she left little, you know, love notes and pictures on my doorstep."
For Nelson, the separation was heartbreaking: "You're not a teacher if you can't be with your kids. Computers are not kids. They're not your teacher."
Florida has been one of the most aggressive large states when it comes to reopening in-person school. By Oct. 1, Nelson was back in the classroom at Ortega Elementary School.
Since reopening, the school does its best to follow CDC guidelines: Her students, all in masks, are spaced with an empty desk between them. Lunch takes place in the classroom, with students watching a Disney movie to prevent too much conversation. Everyone coming in the door gets a pump of hand sanitizer and a choice of COVID-safe greeting — like toe-tapping or hip-bumping.
Even with the social distancing, Nelson says, "I'm just so happy to have my hands on 'em. Computer teaching is not the same. It's just not."
Her school is small and close-knit, and there have been no outbreaks. But not everything is back to normal. Some of her students have missed weeks at a time for quarantine because their families are front-line workers.
The lost learning time adds up. Especially, she says, with students who are still struggling to catch up from the year before. "They didn't learn what they needed to learn to enter first grade. And then if they were more behind, they're more behind even still. So there's definitely that loss of learning."
She says that, despite the disruption, her district hasn't officially changed its student achievement targets from previous years; the state is going ahead with testing next month, as the Biden administration is requiring states to do. Nelson says teachers need to strike a balance when it comes to catch-up expectations.
"If you push too hard, the kids are going to shut down because they can't make it happen. But if then if you act wishy-washy, they're not going to try to rise to any occasion."
Despite these tensions, on the day we talk there is one big bright spot: She has just gotten her first dose of a coronavirus vaccine.
The college freshman
The end of senior year of high school didn't go exactly as Alexis Jones had planned. Everything was online — including her AP exams. And instead of a spacious school surrounded by friends and teachers, she found herself studying and taking classes in her father's cramped two-bedroom apartment in Washington, D.C.
Alexis is a top student, with a passion for art and social justice. But even dreaming about college, which usually brought solace and joy, was nerve-wracking: "It's weird to think about college when other stuff is going on that's threatening the health of people," she told us last March. "Maybe I'll have to rethink my plans, or I hate to say, not go to college next year. But I'll just have to play it by ear. I guess."
When we spoke with her again in late April, she had some big news: She had committed to Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. She'd been dreaming about California, but with the pandemic, she wanted a location her dad could drive to, in case he needed to come pick her up in an emergency.
By May, the delight of getting into an Ivy League school was overshadowed by the uncertainty of the pandemic: "I don't know how to feel because I don't know if I'm going to be going immediately in the fall, but I guess I'm still excited."
But Cornell was among the roughly 20% of colleges that opened up in-person, with regular weekly testing. Jones had never visited the school before, and says she'll always remember the first thing she did when she finally arrived: take a COVID-19 test.
"I got tested. I got my I.D. I got my [dorm] key," she said. Because of pandemic protocols that limited building access, she carried all her belongings to her room by herself. She decorated her new home — a double room all to herself — and settled in.
In the fall she had some in-person classes. Although everyone was six feet apart and wearing masks, she said it really did feel like college, with discussions and interactions. This semester, her classes are all online, which means she doesn't even have to leave her room, except to get food.
It's not ideal, but it's what she's got — and she says she's thriving. This week started with a meeting on Zoom with her Japanese language professor.
"Konnichiwa," Jones says into her computer. "Konnichiwa, Jones-san", her professor says back. "Nihongo wa taihen desu ka?" (Japanese is tough, right?) her professor asks. "Yes, it is hard," Jones replies, laughing.
Jones says that in high school she would spend her free time making art or reading books. So the stunted social life on campus hasn't really been a problem. "I'm not like a social, social, social person," she says.
She's made a few friends through social media — and study groups. She has yet to go to a college party (which even though she's not a "party girl," she was looking forward to experiencing).
Instead, social highlights include having a few people over to her room. But even that comes with COVID stress.
"I still think that is a risk," she says. "You know, I am letting my friends, new friends into my room. Like I don't know these people. I don't know where they've been."
Looking back, she's glad she landed on a campus that invested in testing to make being in-person possible.
And she's hopeful she'll get to go to that big college party someday. "I know I haven't gotten the typical freshman experience," she says, "but luckily I am a freshman, so I still have three more years before I'm graduating to see what college is actually like."
And while she's looking forward to the social stuff, she says she's really here to learn, to grow and to graduate.
Kendra Mendoza lives in Providence, R.I., with her two kids, both teenagers. She's a single parent and works long hours as a home health care provider.
During our first interview, back in August, she was very frank about the challenges she was facing in the pandemic, even laughing about it: "I have a lot to say, a lot of opinions, and I don't got any answers."
Mendoza's 17-year-old son, Joshua, has cerebral palsy and a cluster of conditions that put him in a wheel chair and fragile health.
Mendoza said back in August that all of Joshua's therapies had stopped because of the pandemic, but she had recently been told he could go back to school in the fall. At the time, she was wrestling with whether to send him. She worried then that because of her son's physical challenges, if he got COVID-19, he could die.
It's now six months later, and we recently caught up with Kendra Mendoza on a Saturday morning Zoom call. The laugh was still there, but Mendoza said life has gotten harder.
Her rent has gone up and, even though she pays her bills on time, her water got shut off for two weeks in December. Her focus, though, is on Joshua. After we spoke in August, she decided to keep him home. Coronavirus was just too scary.
But it's not quite working anymore. Normally, her son is very social, "making all kinds of jokes and noises and trying to bring up conversation. He's just so sociable and happy. He loves music."
But he's been out of school now now for a full year, she says, and Joshua has become increasingly lonely.
He misses his best friend, Kobe, who also has special needs. So, Mendoza was thinking recently, maybe it's time for Joshua to go back to school.
But, when she asked him: What do you want?
To her surprise, he said, he wants to stay home. Like so many parents, Mendoza has fought hard for a sense of control in this pandemic.
One year in, though, she's realizing, she can't control everything, and she's trying to be OK with that. "I'm working on it, I'm working on it."
It's time, she says, for Joshua to be able "to choose his happiness" — and for her to worry less.