Celebrate the First Graduating Class of Covid — and the Role Public Schools Played in Getting Them Through the Pandemic
By B.E. St. John, Chief Innovation and Communications Officer, Communities In Schools of Chicago
Starting this week, Chicago’s high school seniors will turn the tassels on their mortarboards and become official graduates. In any year, graduating from high school is cause for celebration. But for the Class of 2023 it merits a standing ovation.
That’s because this spring’s graduates are also the Class of Covid. Hard to believe, but when the virus emerged in early 2020, today’s seniors were just freshmen. By mid-March of that year, schools in Chicago and across the nation closed as a public health precaution. Initially expecting classes to resume in two weeks, it would in fact not be until August 2021, the start of their junior year, that all members of Chicago Public Schools’ Class of 2023 would return to in-person learning.
We now know that young people struggled mightily during this period of fear, uncertainty and social isolation. The U.S. Surgeon General has warned of the urgent state of youth mental health in the United States in the wake of the pandemic. Data from the CDC and other sources further points to a troubling rise in youth depression and suicide attempts since 2019. And a growing body of evidence shows that learning loss was high.
My organization, Communities In Schools of Chicago, was one of many partners on the frontlines with Chicago Public Schools during the pandemic. Our program team reached out regularly to check in on hundreds of vulnerable students across the city. They provided sympathetic ears and made sure students were showing up for online classes, staying on top of their grades, and practicing self-care.
Even the most talented and tenacious students experienced setbacks during Covid. West Sider Jaylin, who began ninth grade strong in fall 2019 at a North Side high school, struggled when the pandemic set in. When in-person classes ceased, he had to help take care of younger nieces and nephews. Consequently, his online attendance and grades dropped significantly. Thirty miles away, at a high school on the city’s far Southeast Side, another Class of 2023 member named Gianna was persevering during remote learning. But the return to in-person classes at the start of her junior year overwhelmed her at times. She felt guarded being around people again, and that sense of disconnection negatively impacted her grades and self-esteem.
Thankfully, both these young people found a path forward. They worked with their teachers, community partners, and other caring adults at their school to get their academics back on track and learn strategies to manage stress. Each also took advantage of resources at their schools. Jaylin became a passionate member of the theater program. Gianna emerged as a vocal leader in a girls empowerment group. As graduation day approaches, both are earning good grades and have solid post-secondary plans in place.
Jaylin attributed his turnaround to the wraparound support he received from his school community during the pandemic. “In a time where I was unmotivated, felt isolated, and alone, people at my school taught me I can trust others and that I can trust myself. Having them around to listen to me, encourage me, and teach me new skills helped me to become a better and healthier person.”
Jaylin and Gianna are just two of more than 3 million American students who started high school in 2019–20. The challenges they faced the last four years and their paths to healing and recovery are not unique among this year’s graduating class. Instead, their stories are representative of the resiliency that so many of our young people displayed during one of the most difficult periods ever faced by our public schools.
As graduation ceremonies take place across the nation, we need to cheer these young people on for all they’ve accomplished during the Covid years. But we also must stay focused on supporting the younger students who are coming up behind them. The worst of the pandemic may be behind us, but the lingering effects of it are not. As federal Covid relief money winds down and pandemic headlines fade, we need to keep advocating for our public schools to remain robust community hubs where our young people can access the mental health supports, mentorship, and enrichment opportunities they need. These are not nice-to-haves for students navigating the post-pandemic world. They’re essential to keep all our young people on the path to graduation and post-secondary success.
B.E. St. John has been an advocate for public school students for 30 years. He is Chief Innovation and Communications Officer at the educational nonprofit, Communities In Schools of Chicago, which helps tens of thousands of Chicago public school students succeed in school and life.