COVID grads reflect on high school experience shaped by pandemic

COVID grads reflect on high school experience shaped by pandemic

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Six high school seniors are about to graduate, but their high school experience was anything but typical. They were freshmen in September 2020, seven months into the COVID pandemic, and no other high school class has been more impacted in decades.

News10NBC Chief Investigative Reporter Berkeley Brean has been following six students about to graduate high school. Four years ago, walking the hallways freely couldn’t happen. Julia Jaeger started ninth grade wearing a mask and Irondequoit High School started with tape on the floors to keep students six feet apart.

“We were trying our best. We were going two days a week and I was like – oh my goodness I’m never going to learn anything,” Jaeger said.

Brean profiled six COVID grads from Irondequoit, Victor, Rochester, and Hilton.

“First day of school ninth grade. What was it like?” Brean asked Abby Hilburger.

“It was weird. No one wanted to talk. You’re just kind of like – put your head down,” she responded.

“It was just weird running with a mask on and everyone was separated. Definitely weird socially,” said Aiden Hryhorenko.

Like Hilton, Victor High School was a hybrid. For Sophia Weingart and Kevin Qian, it meant two days in school, and two days remote with Wednesdays off and masks on.

“I remember the hallways being dead silent. It was nothing that I thought high school would be like because only half the kids were there,” Weingart said.

“Trying to play six feet apart and then on Zoom was just absolutely crazy,” said Qian, who was in the orchestra.

Brean asked every student what impact COVID had on them and their high school career.

“It was really nice coming back finally sophomore year, that first week, midway through we all got to take off our masks. It was crazy seeing everyone’s face again,” said Weingart.

“I think it definitely pushed me to be more independent overall just because being in school only two days and online for two days,” Qian said.

“It’s so weird. I say I was lonely but I feel COVID has kind of helped me come out of my shell,” said Hilburger. “COVID helped me spend more time with myself and figure out who I am.”

“Oh, I loved high school. It’s like my jam. We were still able to make the memories and do the things normal high schoolers would do with COVID,” Jaeger said.

Of all the COVID grads Brean talked to, no one’s life was more affected than Sadie Rolle-Knox at School of the Arts.

COVID Graduates reflect on their high school experience

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“What impact did COVID have on you?” Brean asked.

“Oh, so there were many small impacts that accumulated to almost tear me down in a way,” Rolle-Knox responded. “There was no trajectory for where my life was going to go so I was like, what’s the point anymore, you know?”

One of the reasons Rolle-Knox felt like that was that, unlike her fellow COVID grads, she and all of her classmates in the city were fully remote.

“A very long roller coaster. A very long, a very windy, like vroom vroom vroom [rollercoaster].” Rolle-Knox said of her high school experience.

Imagine trying to take a music class on Zoom and your laptop has to be muted. That’s what Rolle-Knox had to do. The excitement of her freshman year in September turned to depression by Thanksgiving.

“I used to have a desk so I would get up and go to school by sitting at my desk,” she said. “But by quarter two I was sitting up in bed, opening my laptop and just staring at the screen.”

When things bottomed out, Rolle-Knox went outside and immersed herself in nature and it turned her life around.

“I couldn’t go out to the store but I could go out to the park. I could walk around my neighborhood,” she said.

“When you think back to that experience as a freshman and where you are now, what’s the difference?” Brean asked.

“Whoa. Huge difference I say. Almost different people,” Rolle-Knox responded.

She started getting roles in high school musicals and is part of the SOTA news team.

“I have so many more friends I talk to and it’s almost like my shell is broken,” she said. “I’m just out more and I’m more myself. And a lot happier too.”

“When you think of the future, are you hopeful?” Brean asked.

“Yeah, I am hopeful. I’m excited and I feel more prepared and ready to see where life takes me,” Rolle-Knox said.

Life takes her to the Rochester Institute of Technology. Rolle-Knox will be a freshman on campus in September.

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