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Napa County's Class of 2024: Missing out, catching up and coming to terms with it

Napa County's Class of 2024: Missing out, catching up and coming to terms with it

Katie Marsden’s senior year at American Canyon High School has been tense.

Anytime her dad would bring up college, she’d burst into tears.

“I realized that I have to move on from this, and I definitely didn’t feel like my high school experience was over,” she said. “... There's just a certain emotional maturity that you get from going through a year of in-person high school that we missed out on.” 

For millennia, teenagers have frustrated teachers and parents with their insistence that adults don’t understand what they’re going through. This time, they might be right. 

Almost four years ago, the graduating high school class of 2024 began its freshman year in a fog of uncertainty. Instead of sitting in classrooms and looking around to see where they might fit in, students clicked into Zoom classes and stared mostly at little black boxes. Some spent their days pretending to listen to lectures while they scrolled their social media accounts. Some logged into classes without getting out of bed. 

They missed out on sports, clubs, dances, hangouts, trips, friends, romances, and huge chunks of academic curriculum and support. And all of that amid a toxic presidential race, a climate of racial tension that rivaled the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and a relentless stream of media reports that a virus was coming to kill them.

It could not have been easy.

Now, as the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic fades into memory, graduating students are getting ready for their next transition, but not without reflecting on their unconventional high school debut. 

When Marsden, 17, started online classes in August 2020, her parents were adamant that she show up ready to be a student. 

“I had to get dressed and sit at my desk in my room,” she said. “My parents were very strict about it.” 

Over time, as it became clear that life wasn’t going back to normal anytime soon, she migrated from her desk to the floor in front of her bed. And she continued struggling to connect with other students through her screen.

“I felt like I was putting a lot of effort in, but I felt like nobody else really was,” she said. “I was also new to the school, so I didn’t know anybody.” 

When students finally came back to campus full time in August 2021, the social part of high school didn’t get any easier. Marsden said that on her first day on campus, she felt like a kindergartner leaving her parents for the first time.

“It was like starting school all over again,” she said. “I was so anxious to be away from my parents, and I didn't know how to act without them.”

American Canyon seniors Zoe Keller, left, Katie Marsden, center, and Paige Rosal pose for a photograph in the drama room at American Canyon High School on Tuesday, May 28. Nick Otto, Register

Now she says she only had two good years in high school and is still recovering from the isolation of virtual learning.

“It took me two years of in-person school to finally catch up to the ability of making new friends and meeting new people,” she said. 

Adults who work in Napa’s public schools have heard that a lot this year. On-site mental health professionals have played a critical role in understanding the emotional and developmental impact pandemic isolation has had on students.

“In this time frame of adolescence, connection is so important,” said Rubi Pelayo, a clinical social worker and therapist at Napa High School’s wellness center. “And that was the biggest piece we couldn’t have – social connection. There was a lot of loneliness.” 

The 2021 Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a snapshot of how high schoolers across the U.S. were feeling during the first year of the pandemic. More than 44% of students in grades 9 to 12 reported experiencing persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. Almost 20% seriously considered suicide, and 9% said they had attempted to kill themselves.

Researchers observed that students who connected with friends, teachers and other students primarily through phones and computers experienced poor mental health more often than those who did not.

The pandemic brought major academic setbacks, too. For the entire 2020-21 school year, the Napa Valley Unified School District only required students to attend classes half time, even after they returned in person. The idea was to split the student body into two groups of classes – one in the morning and one in the afternoon – to allow for social distancing. Marsden said the reduced instruction time has left a gaping hole in her education. She said her science teacher acknowledged to students in class that they were only able to cover about half the required curriculum.

“We just have that gap in our knowledge,” Marsden said. “Later, we were expected to fill that in on our own sometimes, but the school really never did anything to help us recover that lost time because so much of it was lost.”

Lost in transition 

When her freshman year began in the fall of 2020, 18-year-old Julia Bui, a senior at Napa High School, would log into her early-period class on Zoom before 7 a.m. She would still be in her bunk bed with her sister sleeping right above her. 

“It was a really strange feeling,” Bui said. “A lot of time it would be me with the camera on and the teacher with the camera on, and two other kids on a good day.” 

A year later, when classes resumed in person full time, she was up, dressed and sitting at a desk in class each day at 6:50 a.m. By the time she was through all of her classes, sports and extracurriculars, she would have clocked a 10-hour day. At first, she panicked.

“I remember sitting in my early flight class in the morning and just thinking, I don't know how I can stay out for this long,” she said. “I would just sit there and just shake, thinking like, I don't think I can make it physically.”

It was a pace and a level of interaction she had never experienced before. 

“Just being around people for that period of time, coming from nothing, and never having done that before …” she said. "Middle school isn’t like that. Elementary school isn’t like that.” 

Pelayo said once classes were back in person full time, it was common for students to drop into the wellness center and talk about struggling through their days.

American Canyon seniors Katie Marsden, left, Zoe Keller, center, and Paige Rosal pose for a photograph on the campus of American Canyon High School on Tuesday, May 28. Nick Otto, Register

“Having to be back for, like, that six- to seven-hour school day was a challenge,” she said. “For other students, part of that exhaustion was also that sleep schedules were totally thrown.”

Bui said it was campus activities, including tennis, that got her through high school. In fact, she would carry her racket with her all day.  

“They meant everything to me, as a way to really, like, safely and positively introduce myself to different social experiences,” she said. 

Still, Bui said, she never really felt connected to her graduating class and opted to skip conventional grad-year traditions, including senior sunrise and senior ditch day, because they felt to her more performative than authentic.

“I don't feel that my class as a whole has a sense of ownership over the school or a lot of school spirit compared to normal,” she said. “High school is now about to end, and we're just kind of not on that typical track of being seniors and being really socially confident.”

Pelayo, the Napa High therapist, said missing out on rites of passage, or having to approximate them in isolation, has left some students with feelings of grief and loss. 

“For many students, there's a lot of anxiety and excitement about going into high school, and just thinking about your first day of high school.” she said. “For these students, they didn’t get to experience that in person.”

More friction on-campus post-COVID

Like many freshman students, Paige Rosal started high school, albeit online, confused about how to be a teenager. She didn’t know how to dress or what to say, and she struggled to pay attention to the computer screen perched on her dresser next to a curling iron.

“It felt weird for me because I didn’t know how to act,” said Rosal, now a senior at American Canyon High School.

As weird as she felt, she found some respite in a student leadership class she took during her first semester. The class pushed her into more social interaction, she said, because many of the upperclassmen in class had known each other pre-pandemic.

“Everyone felt comfortable with each other,” she said. “They were able to talk and have their cameras on and be chill, like it felt like you're on a phone call with friends.” 

While those interactions were helpful, she said, returning to in-person classes in 2021 brought new stressors and challenges. It took time for students to settle back into campus life and fights were not uncommon.

Prior to high school, Rosal attended a strict Catholic school in the Philippines where students would get suspended for cursing and other minor infractions. What she saw when finally stepped onto the American Canyon High School campus shocked her.

“There were fights breaking out almost every day,” Rosal said. “It felt very overwhelming, and I just wanted to go back and Zoom at that point."

NVUSD spokesperson Julie Bordes noted that the district saw an increase in problematic behavior as students transitioned back into school full time. In data provided by Bordes, according to student discipline records, citations related to physical altercations at American Canyon High jumped from 48 in 2018-19 to 69 in 2021-22. 

Bordes said in a statement that this doesn’t necessarily mean there were 48 fights, but rather 48 citations relating to fights, which could mean a student received three citations from one incident.

“These behaviors were a reflection of what was occurring across the state and nation and were not unique to ACHS or NVUSD,” she said. “We addressed and continue to address these unique challenges as a school system.” 

Summer Heartt, who teaches drama and English at American Canyon, said student fights on campus were rare pre-pandemic and became much more frequent in 2021. 

Heartt has been teaching for two decades. NVUSD recently nominated her for Napa County Teacher of the Year. But in 2021, when everyone was struggling to make school work through computer screens, she thought about quitting.

“The kids were not invested in their learning,” she said. “It was the last thing on their minds.” 

Heartt said, academically, the half-day schedule during the COVID-19 lockdown and hybrid learning period set students back.

“That really cut their school year in half,” she said. “Or less than half because virtual learning isn’t as effective unless it’s sought out.” 

Heartt could see the impact of isolation on her students when they returned to in-person classes. The classroom side chatter that students had always engaged in was missing, she said, and the vibe was creepy. She tried to nudge students out of their heads by reading plays by Shakespeare aloud in class. 

“It was after that they started seeming like the teenagers I was used to! It helped them break the ice,” Heartt said. 

Finding new paths 

As stressful and disorienting as high school has been for the class of 2024, some managed to find direction and personal growth because of the pandemic.

Zoe Keller, a senior at American Canyon High, spent much of the lockdown trying to stay awake during Zoom classes, and her first year on campus fending off anxiety attacks. She always felt she was a year behind. And now that she’s graduating, it feels weird that it's over.

“This is the only year I felt caught up,” she said, “and was like, oh crap, I’m a senior.”

But it was one of her coping strategies that set her on an academic path she might never have considered were it not for the pandemic. In the fall she’ll start attending the California State University Maritime Academy in Vallejo to study oceanography and earn a master’s degree in marine biology.

This is the only year I felt caught up, and was like, oh crap, I’m a senior.

- Zoe Keller

“It was because of COVID I was able to figure that out,” Keller said. “When I was overwhelmed or something, I would go to the beach. And so that was kind of the catalyst.”

As graduation approaches, Katie Marsden has stopped falling apart at the mention of college and has been accepted to UCLA, where she’ll study history this fall. Although her high school experience could not have been further from what she had imagined, she said she’s been telling herself that college will be just like it is in the movies — that she’ll make a lot of friends, go to parties, take niche classes and figure out what she wants to do with her life. 

Collaborative Journalism Project

This story was produced as part of the Napa Community Journalism Lab, supported by Napa Valley Community Foundation. The lab is a collaboration of The Napa Valley Register, Highway 29 Media, and Wine Down Media. Trey Bundy is our lead editor in residence. Dana Cronin is our producer in residence.

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