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3 Teens Talk About Missing Out on Socializing During COVID

The last time Ava Golder was in a school building without a mask, she was in seventh grade. It was early March of 2020: before the reality of the pandemic hit, before Ava and her classmates were sent home for what was supposed to be a two-week pause on the school year, before social distancing and quarantining became part of the nation’s vocabulary and daily lives, before COVID-19 claimed 618,000 American lives and counting.

Now Ava is leaving middle school behind — even as she lost half of it to the haze of Zoom learning and shifting CDC guidelines — and heading to high school for the third school year in a row that will be completely upended by the coronavirus. For a brief moment, when vaccinations were on the rise and cases were decreasing, there was hope that a somewhat normal school year could be in store. But now, as the Delta variant surges, those hopes are hanging in the balance. Students like Ava are left to traverse transitional periods in their lives amid the backdrop of an ongoing deadly pandemic.

Most of Ava’s seventh and eighth grade years were spent learning remotely. “It kind of became normal, which was the most odd part,” she tells Teen Vogue. When she thinks of her friends now, she sometimes imagines them in their little Zoom squares. When she talks to people in real life, she finds herself unsure what to say because she’s gotten so used to responding to text messages. As Ava watches the first day of high school draw closer, she’s worried that she’s not ready for it. “Middle school is usually preparing you for [high school], but the preparations were derailed,” she says. “That’s the most nerve-racking part for me — are you going to be full-on ready to be back in the rhythm of school with really intense schedules?” She wonders if her optimism for the upcoming school year is misplaced. “In the back of my mind, I’m like, what if there’s another surge and we have to go back online again? I’m more on the side of optimism, like maybe everything will be just fine. Maybe everything will be [truly] normal.”

Jessi Gold, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, says the transition into high school or college is something many teens dream about. Their hopes and expectations are now coming up against the reality of a pandemic. “When you go and it’s masks or virtual or severely limited social interactions, it takes so much off of that grand view of what high school or college is supposed to be like,” says Gold. “You have these visions of what life will be like when you get there.”

Melissa Shang, 18, didn’t imagine spending her junior and senior years of high school secluded from her classmates and friends. Because she has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a nerve problem that can affect breathing and makes her vulnerable to a severe case of the COVID-19 virus, she has exclusively attended online classes since March 2020. There were some silver linings, she says. A flexible learning schedule allowed her to rest more and be less fatigued. Having assignments due at the end of each week let her finish her work on days she was less tired and put it off if she was having an off day. She could rest without what she calls “consistent worry.” And the access issues that plagued her day-to-day life in school — like waiting for a door to be held open or the school elevator being broken — disappeared. During the first months of the pandemic, when her classmates were learning remotely too, school felt easier for her than it had ever been. But eventually, her classmates went back in-person and she didn’t, which left her feeling increasingly isolated. “I saw them posting selfies or taking notes or eating lunch, and I felt like I was in a completely separate world because I was the only one attending on Zoom,” she says.

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