One year later
In the year since COVID-19 shut the world down, students at MCHS have experienced — and persevered through — so much change. But is life starting to return back to normal?
March 12, 2021
SARS-CoV-2, more commonly known as coronavirus or COVID-19, has completely turned the world upside down. What started as a distant virus spreading through China quickly became a global pandemic. The world has had to adjust to socializing through a screen, maintaining a six-foot distance from each other and wearing masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
March 13 marks one year since the pandemic began. While this year has not been easy, students and staff at MCHS have all worked together to overcome its challenges. People came together to support frontline workers, provide help to those who needed it, and spread positivity where ever they could.
While the beginning was dark and our battle to the end of the pandemic is far from over, a year later, we have the hope of a successful COVID-19 vaccination.
The first case of COVID-19 in the US was reported on January 21 in Washington.
After that first case was reported in the US, things began to change and the spread of the virus began to pick up. On January 31, only ten days later, the World Health Organization, WHO, issues a Global Health Emergency, according to the American Journal of Managed Care (AJMC) Timeline of COVID-19 Developments in 2020.
On February 3, a public health emergency was also declared in the US. By this time there were more than 9300 COVID-19 cases and 200 confirmed COVID-19 deaths worldwide.
The coronavirus outbreak was officially declared a pandemic on March 11 by WHO. This was closely followed by former President Donald Trump declaring a national emergency two days later, on March 13.
That same day, Illinois governor JB Pritzker closed all schools in Illinois until March 31. Schools remained closed for the rest of the 2019-2020 academic school year.
On March 13, MCHS announced that it would close the week before spring break. Students were to learn asynchronously and then reevaluate and return to school shortly after the week-long spring break.
“I think at first, like everyone else, I was overjoyed that we had an extra week of spring break,” said Elizabeth Hying, current senior at MCHS. “Then probably like a month later was when I started getting nervous, like, ‘How long is this gonna last? How long are we going to be stuck like this?’ I wanted to go back to school. I really liked school. I enjoy being [at school] so just the longer and longer it went, the sadder I was that I couldn’t go to school.”
“When we were first told that we were going to have ‘an extended spring break’ I was happy,” said Emily Meyer, MCHS sophomore. “Once it extended through the rest of freshman year, I was kind of upset because there were going to be things that we would have to miss out on.”
However, as COVID-19 cases continued to rapidly increase, Pritzker issued a stay-at-home order on March 21. Schools remained closed, and remote learning schedules were put into action. Teachers jumped into teaching via Schoology and Zoom calls, and students navigated learning in a digital environment.
“We were functioning in that remote environment and that was something that no one in education has ever done before where you were sitting down and serving students in a complete remote capacity,” said Dr. Ryan McTague, District 156 Superintendent. “I’m very proud of our staff members and I’m very proud of our students because I thought that we were able to still deliver that high level of instruction, you’re really utilizing that modality that had never been used before.”
The sudden change to full remote learning was difficult for teachers, who had to quickly learn to navigate digital teaching and providing quality instruction to students.
“It completely changed everything about our program,” said Spencer Hile, band director. “Our curriculum in classes had to change drastically because everything we do is about playing music with and for other people. Our classes are built around multiple concerts each semester and that all went away.”
“I was very excited in the beginning of the quarantine because I thought I could demonstrate and prepare digital lessons successfully,” said Michelle Zimmerman, West Campus art instructor. “What I didn’t anticipate was the additional hours of prep time. I was working 14 hour days planning and creating videos. The work itself was fun, but the additional time taken away from my ‘Zim’ time was very difficult for me and was starting to wear me down emotionally.”
With school being closed for the rest of the semester, all school activities and sports were also canceled. This, along with remote learning, was difficult for students, especially seniors of the class of 2020 who graduated in May.
“It tore me apart,” said Anastasia Correra, MCHS class of 2020 graduate. “And it wasn’t that I cared so much about being there, per se. It was the fact that my senior year was getting cut off right before the year was supposed to be fun. All of the exciting and fun stuff about senior year happens in April and May and we were cut off in March, so that was a tough pill to swallow. It felt like the rest of the year was a huge waste of time. and it hurts knowing I’ll never get that back.”
“I had graduated early in December, so I was halfway into my first semester of college at [McHenry County College],” said Brooke Nett, MCHS class of 2020 graduate. “However, I was still looking forward to going to the traditional events like prom and graduation so I was incredibly shocked but I know it was for the best. We needed to do what we could to keep everyone safe and at least we could still learn. Even if it was online.”
By the end of May, COVID-19 cases were still increasing, and deaths related to the virus had reached a new height in the U.S.
Stuck in summer
Throughout the course of the summer, COVID-19 cases continued to increase, and strict guidelines were still in place to help prevent the spread of the virus.
Despite the restrictions, many students found ways to stay positive during the summer quarantine. Some found ways to socialize and spend time with friends safely while others focused on doing things to stay busy.
“I just talked to friends a lot, kept in touch,” said senior and athlete Ryan Kostelnik. “We did some team Zoom meetings, stuff like that. Just keeping in touch with friends and trying to socialize from home.”
“After talking with the friends I met, we safely planned ways to hang out,” said sophomore Joseph Sacramento. “We made TikToks, played “Just Dance,” went to the lake, played board games, played “Minecraft,” and ordered food. I also started biking around town in my free time.”
“I started working out a lot and I would bake a lot of desserts and stuff,” said Hying. “And of course I watched Netflix. I would almost write like to-do lists every day just so I would do one productive thing, or I started drawing a lot, so as long as I did one thing other than sleeping that day I felt productive.”
“I feel like FaceTiming people really helped,” said junior Jeff Lin. “I feel like that was the main thing that actually, helped me a little bit more.”
Administration and teachers also used the summer to prepare them for the upcoming school year. They worked to create safe hybrid learning models that would efficiently serve students and improve the remote learning experience to make it easier for teachers to provide quality education and students to be successful in learning.
“I did have an opportunity to adjust to the fall semester,” said Sean Sterner, chair of the social science department. “As the summer school principal, I had the opportunity to see how digital learning works and that helped me prepare for this school year.”
“I think in early June or July they issued new orders of how schools can reopen schools, under a hybrid model,” said McTague. “We were kind of in that preparation phase of coming back in a hybrid model. And then, of course, right before school started, we saw another increase in cases, new guidance was issued, and we were forced to remain digital.”
By the end of the summer, COVID-19 cases had once again spiked dramatically. The increase in cases pushed back the reopening of schools, businesses, and social gatherings.
Back to home-school
At the beginning of the school year, MCHS was prepared to return to a hybrid learning schedule that would allow students to be back in the classroom learning for the first time since March.
However, COVID-19 cases once again began to spike and it became the third leading cause of death in the US.
“There’s been a 3.2% uptick in COVID-19–related deaths, to 170,434, giving the disease a No. 3 ranking behind heart disease in the top spot and cancer at No. 2,” stated the American Journal of Managed Care. “Deaths now exceed 1000 per day and nationwide cases exceed 5.4 million.”
In response to the increase of cases, MCHS decided to begin the semester remotely and wait to transition to a hybrid learning model when McHenry County fit the back-to-school metric provided by the McHenry County Department of Health.
For freshmen, this would be their first day of high school, and they would spend it in their homes glued to the computer. There’s no true way to prepare for one’s first day of virtual school, and many students had to learn this the hard way.
“It was very weird and kind of stressful to start high school remotely,” said freshman Ella Boland. “I found it hard to figure out what exactly was going on and many teachers would talk about stuff I had no idea about.”
This was true for many freshmen who logged off after the first day very confused about their classes, teachers, and what to expect for the school year.
“Starting high school remotely was a little scary because I had no idea what I was doing and no way of knowing how long we were gonna be remote,” said freshman Lola Cassidy.
“It was a bit disappointing to start high school remotely, I was expecting the regular high school experience,” said freshman Jacob Jensen.
Freshmen, however, were not the only ones struggling with starting the semester off remotely. Many students found it difficult especially after finishing last school year remotely.
Junior Audrey Whitman has experienced multiple back-to-school seasons at MCHS, but this one was easily the most challenging for her. “It was very different for me because I like being at school and the different environments,” Whitman shares, “Those interactions with people are what I really need to be able to be successful in school.”
Other issues would arise during the semester that posed threats to the students’ ability to learn. Freshman Maya Gill claims, “For me, remote learning started off really strong. I was excited to get back to learning and interacting with my teachers. But after the first week went by I had lost all motivation to do any of my school work.”
Gill isn’t the only one who feels this way, many other MCHS students confess that remote learning felt optional and easy to blow off.
Teachers ran into many problems as well. Their job became much more difficult in an online classroom, and they had to help students stay on top of things. As a high-energy teacher, Mitchell Stengel had to adjust his methods of teaching to suit the virtual format. “While I think I have a super-engaging teaching style, I did my best to keep students engaged and to help them with a buy-in to the learning happening in our virtual classroom.”
Despite their best efforts, there were some things that teachers just couldn’t prevent. “Remote learning was very repetitive,” freshman Tyler Hurckes admits. “It felt like it was the same day every day.” As the days blended together students found themselves forgetting topics they had just covered.
Unlike anything students had ever tackled before, remote learning proved to be a struggle for all involved. The days got repetitive, students got bored, and teachers tried to push through.
As remote learning persisted into the winter months, students began battling with their mental health and motivation. Many students felt isolated by both the cold weather and the pandemic.
“The winter was a lonely one. We did not have much football and there was really no point to be outside because the cold was brutal” described senior Paul Zunkel.
While this was true for several students, others used it as an opportunity to work on themselves and tried to stay positive.
“Another thing that I did was facing my anxiety and facing my depression,” said sophomore Rayaan Ahmed. “I decided well there’s nothing I can lose so facing those and seeing what made me think negatively really allowed me to fix myself and things I did that were hurting me. It was a lot of self-evaluation and analyzing yourself. I started thinking ahead and making completely new goals and challenges that I could overcome to get me to feel confident. This allowed me to work for something gradually and look forward to something new every day.”
During the winter at home, many students worked to better themselves, in order to maintain positivity during the long months. Keeping a positive attitude helped so many students like Ahmed continue to have the motivation to do school from home.
While motivation was lacking at the end of remote learning, many students felt rejuvenated with the return to in-person learning through MCHS’s hybrid model which they implemented on January 20.
“I’m looking forward to being able to socialize with others and meet new people,” said freshman Abigail Hertel. “You would not think that you wanted to go back to school so bad.”
“But definitely being in person like I have more motivation to like do well,” said Zunkel. “I’m back in the groove of stuff like that so I’m just really excited about football and then you know being at school, kind of like I touched on it. I have more motivation, while my grades are getting better and I’m just more excited about it.”
Students found that it was easier to have motivation when there was something to look forward to like a sport or going into school, rather than sitting at home just doing school and nothing else. The motivation created a better environment at school, which works to feed other students with the motivation to work towards success.
Sports and activities starting up again have been a big motivation for students and have created much more positivity surrounding the current hybrid learning.
“It’s nice to be back in sports,” said Kostelnik. “I think with hybrid, it’s still not the same it feels like half a senior year. It doesn’t feel like I’m really in school only going two days a week so I’d rather be all online or, all in person, but I’m still going into school to do sports and finish my senior year.”
“I’m just glad the kids get the opportunity to play. Last year’s spring seniors didn’t even get that opportunity,” said John Beerbower, West Campus PE teacher and coach. “Even if it’s a few games, a short season, I think the fact that we can do something is great. I’m more appreciative of what we can do than what we can’t.”
Lots of students needed a separate environment to do school work, and going to school in the hybrid model gives that to students. Being in the building that has a positive environment can transfer motivation and happiness to students.
“You know, it’s not as much interaction I think among students and teachers,” explained Whitman. “So it is quite different. But I think just again being back in the building is nice and motivating to be back.”
Being in the building for school has also helped students get the support they need from teachers rather than being distracted at home. Being in the building is so helpful for so many students. But also some students do need social interaction in order to stay motivated.
While transitioning to the hybrid plan, many teachers had to adjust to accommodate all students.
“I was able to adapt,” stated choir director Derek Galvicius. “I was able to figure out how to make it work. It was just not the most ideal situation. I find it the most challenging to make sure that I still make my Zoomers feel as though they are absolutely still a part of the group.”
Even though teachers found it difficult to do this at first, almost every teacher has found a way to adjust. According to Stengel, he includes his remote students in everything that he does, and brings them around the room, he talks to them one-on-one, and he has made it a point to make sure that they are included in our classroom environment. With teachers adjusting to the hybrid model, almost every student has been able to learn successfully.
“Hybrid learning is definitely much better than e-learning, I feel like I can actually connect to other people now” stated Cassidy.
Being able to be in-person working with other students is way more beneficial to the student than being put in a Zoom breakout room with other students. Students now have a chance to connect and build relationships with other students. For a lot of the students being in-person with other students and teachers actually helps the student focus.
According to Gill, “It feels like real school again because I am able to interact with teachers and my friends and I actually paid attention in my classes, and the worry of my grades slipping again went away and I was able to enjoy the hybrid experience.”
The social aspect of school has definitely changed over the year, mostly due to COVID-19. Students now would rather go to their devices, instead of how they used to talk. COVID-19 has put fear in us to not interact with people closely whenever possible.
Galvicius described, “what I do notice now, talking and high fives and hugging and hey what are you doing this weekend are gone. Now everyone’s like, okay, straight to their devices. That element of social interaction is gone for now, but even students seeing each other has helped raise morale and motivation.”
The grades of students have been improving throughout hybrid learning compared to complete remote learning.
“My overall grades have actually been more positive than last semester, and I truthfully believe it’s because of my students and how hard they’re working when they’re in the classroom,” explained Stengel. Since students have become more motivated when it comes to school, grades have been improving in all teacher’s classrooms.
A new sort of normal
The past year has not been easy. Everyone has had to overcome challenges and experience things that they never thought they would. The COVID-19 pandemic has infected 119 million people worldwide and over 2 million people have died.
While the pandemic is still not over, students and staff at MCHS have all been given hope as the COVID-19 vaccine has been distributed across the world and are beginning to feel life return to a new sort of normal.