The Class of COVID-19

Friday, April 17, 2020

Prom dresses are hanging in closets. Programs printed for senior recitals sit untouched. The rites of passage that teens were expecting have been ripped away, leaving students wondering if they unknowingly already said goodbye to their friends and teachers.

Everyday life for Americans bowed down swiftly and heavily to COVID-19, but for high school seniors, the virus strikes a uniquely acute pang of uncertainty and mourning.

Teenagers appear less susceptible to the critical medical conditions the virus may cause, but when it comes to their mental health, the disruption to their daily schedules can be unnerving.

Before the pandemic, teens between 13-17 were already reporting higher rates of depressive episodes, according to Pew Research Center. The total number of teenagers who experienced depressive moments increased 59% between 2007-17 and for teen girls, that number was even higher at 66%.

Most teens and young adults were too young to absorb the economic instability of the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009, said Dave Swenson, an economics professor at Iowa State University.

But COVID-19 will undoubtedly shake high school students, especially since the worst is yet to come, Swenson said.

Students who were unsure whether or not to attend college will likely go.

Job competition will be fierce as teens compete with displaced adults for work. And the overall weight of a recession will change career and school trajectories and expectations.

“It will affect their outlook,” Swenson said.

But this generation will also be the new wave of adults who will shape a post-COVID-19 world and use their anxieties, fears, anger and tears to mold it.

One Iowa student said she still plans on dedicating her career to health care, despite the grim images of hospitals on television. Another said he will be wary of businesses that turned a blind eye to the pandemic. A Waterloo High School student will remember the racism she and other Asian-Americans endured.

Below are interviews with Iowa high school students from five different school districts about how COVID-19 has upended their expectations, and also how they’re expecting it to shape their future.

They journaled daily for the week of March 29 and took their own photos of images that represent their past, present and future expectations.

For future nursing student, COVID-19 shows the gravity of working in health care


Lauren Zenti, a senior at Roosevelt High School, has seen the images of run-down doctors and nurses. She’s read about overwhelmed hospitals and the anxieties of spreading COVID-19 to loved ones at home.

The pandemic comes at a time when Zenti, 18, is getting ready to graduate and leave Iowa to study nursing at Park University in Missouri.

Ever since the adventure-seeking teen was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a child, she’s wanted to be a source of stability and care for others — just like she received from her nurses and care staff.

She shuffled through potential job titles like veterinarian or doctor. But she ultimately chose nursing and dedicated her last four years of high school to prepare for her eventual dream job, working at a local nursing home and taking a certified nursing assistant class at Central Campus.

“I wanted to help people who needed a shoulder to cry on,” Zenti said. “The nurses are the ones in there realizing the source of the problem and trying to figure it out and ways they can be involved in treating the person and advocating for them.”

Despite the reality of today’s health care crisis, there is no changing her mind. For Zenti, there’s concern, but not fear.

She’s witnessing the harsh realities of her chosen industry, but she’s not deterred by them.

What she hopes her generation learns from enduring the pandemic is the importance of planning, Zenti said. Leaders in the United States knew COVID-19 was ravaging China and quickly spreading to other parts of the globe and yet she feels the country was ill-prepared.

But after living through this and having all stability pulled from under them, Zenti believes this year’s seniors will do better.

“I think our generation needs to realize we need to plan. We can’t sit back and watch and think this isn’t going to happen for us,” Zenti said. “This has happened. We’ve all been through something.”

Discrimination in Asian communities


Carsen Codel’s pandemic-life is packed.

Wake up at 7 a.m. Eat breakfast. Workout. Finish online DMACC classwork. Take voice and piano lessons. At night, play video games, produce a song, read and journal.

Codel is a personification of the social media blog posts on how to use your quarantine-time productively – shattering the teenage boy stereotype of waking up late and hydrating with Red Bull.

For him, it’s not a matter of trying to outshine his peers. It’s maintaining his mental health.

Prior to COVID-19, Codel maintained a hearty academic and social schedule. Varsity swim practices, jazz band, church and honors programs kept his mind and body busy. Slipping from those dedications means slipping into boredom and slipping into boredom means he’s wasting his limited time, especially since he already lost things like his senior vocal recital.

“I felt like I knew I always needed to do something — don’t be bored, don’t be bored, got to do something,” Codel said. “I feel like if I’m not doing anything, even if it’s reading or meditating, I feel like I’m wasting my own time.”

A part of keeping himself busy is reading and watching how COVID-19 shakes out for workers and the economy. Codel is considering a political science or environmental science major and while these times in American history aren’t good — they are interesting to watch unravel.

Media reports showcase how Congress struggled to pass $1,200 stimulus checks for the public and news stories show how some businesses are failing to protect vulnerable workers.

When he attends Washington University in St. Louis this fall, Codel believes he and his peers will remember which leaders stood up and those who stayed down – even after college.

“I’m going to be really skeptical about how I choose to spend my money,” Codel said.

‘Having to say goodbye all at once is hard’


The last remaining weeks of high school were meant to be etched with the stories that would last a lifetime.

If life were a fairytale and things ended happily ever after, the comfortable normalcy of Natalie Jones’ teenage days would return. She would get to say goodbye to her friends before moving on to Iowa State University in the fall.

The itch of senioritis and the urge to leave high school behind was igniting inside, but to have it all abruptly doused isn’t the closure she was imagining.

She misses spending time with her friends, especially when they were supposed to go through their “best” semester, Barth said, when Iowa winter perks up into spring and graduation parties fill weekend schedules. It was supposed to be a time for backyard celebrations and laughing at childhood poster boards and the days go by so fast, commencement is here before you know it.

It’s those little things she won’t forget again.

“It makes you kind of open your eyes and it makes me realize I have taken things for granted in the past. Not everyday you want to wake up and go to school but times like this makes me realize I do want to go to school. You don’t know what will happen.”

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