For high school seniors, pandemic a lesson in uncertainty

Two student leaders discuss the challenges they and other high school seniors are facing in getting through their final semester amid a pandemic.

Grade 12 students adapting to online learning, dealing with anxiety about their future

Amina El Sharif, 18, learns online from her home in Kanata. (Ahmed El Sharif)

For teens about to graduate from high school, COVID-19 has changed virtually every aspect of their lives.

Online classes are the new normal. Milestones such as prom and graduation are question marks. Future plans are on hold. And for many, that sense of comfort and routine that school provided is suddenly gone.

"COVID-19 has opened my eyes. It has reminded me the school environment is a comfort zone for a lot of students, including myself. A lot of students do need that teacher interaction, face-to-face," said Amina El Sharif, a Grade 12 student at Earl of March Secondary School. "Online learning, e-learning, has definitely been the main struggle so far."

As well, those occasions that were supposed to be the highlights of her senior year have vanished. "We all work hard for a prom and grad, and for the fun events, field trips. It is definitely frustrating," El Sharif, 18, told CBC's Ottawa Morning.

Happier times: El Sharif has a laugh at Earl of March Secondary School before the COVID-19 pandemic struck . (Jueun Park)

Carter Sicard, a Grade 12 student at Holy Trinity Catholic High School, was already enrolled in an online course this semester, so he had experience "learning from a computer instead of a teacher."

Sicard, who's president of his student council, knows it's a different story for other students.

"You see a lot of straight-A students who are now having a hard time accomplishing any work, or having the motivation to get anything done at all," said Sicard, 17. "Students are slowly trying to get the hang of it."

It's the fear of the unknown.- Amina El Sharif, Grade 12, Earl of March Secondary School

For El Sharif, there have been roadblocks. "So we're a family of three [students] and my laptop just broke. Terrible timing, right? So we're switching laptops here and there. Trying to do the best that we can using cell phones and iPads. Sometimes, if there's not enough technology to go around, it's hard." 

El Sharif, who is also a member of her school's student council, said she's heard other students describe the online learning experience as "overwhelming" and "stressful."

"It's the fear of the unknown. Family tensions ... parents are on the verge of getting laid off. Just the struggles of not knowing what's going to happen with school, especially as a Grade 12 student." 

Sicard has been spreading the word that there is help for students who are feeling anxious, including talking to classmates, Kids Help Phone, or connecting with guidance counsellors — even a virtual pep talk from familiar faces.

"Our teachers actually put out a YouTube video of them holding up posters of really nice messages for all the students. You could tell that video just kind of brightened people's days," he said.

Sicard even organized a virtual pyjama day to lift students' spirits. "So just little things … to keep your mind off of what's really going on outside," he said. "The idea being to focus on the present, rather than worrying about the future."

But that's a tall order for students on the cusp of graduating. 

Carter Sicard, 17, cuddles his dog Cassius while working on a Grade 12 course. (Submitted by Carter Sicard)

El Sharif is grateful the Ministry of Education has eased certain requirements to help graduating students. For example, Grade 12 marks can only go up, not down.

"It's great that they're recognizing that students may struggle, and the consequences that come with COVID-19 isn't something that they have to worry about," she said.

"But still, our Grade 12 year still does affect our post-secondary plans. I know some students might not be learning as well. So what happens when you go to post-secondary, you feel like there are gaps in your education now."

El Sharif had already been accepted into Carleton University's global and international studies program before the pandemic struck, but for students who had to improve their marks to keep their offer?

"This is gonna be a difficult time for them. A very stressful time."

Have a heart: Sicard, dressed as his school mascot, Twisty the Tornado, celebrates Valentine's Day just weeks before COVID-19 shut down classes at Holy Trinity Catholic High School in Kanata. (Submitted by Carter Sicard)

Sicard has also had offers for next year, but hasn't yet made a decision. "I can only imagine what people are going through right now if they haven't gotten those offers. I'm pretty lucky in that … I have options," he said.

Another worry? Earning enough money to pay for post-secondary education. El Sharif is still getting paid for 15 hours a week for her retail job at the Tanger Outlets mall, but Sicard's part-time job as a DJ has dried up completely. 

Earning money is especially an issue for students saving for school. "They're really struggling right now. They're really stressed out especially if they're leaving [Ottawa] and they need to go into [residence]," said El Sharif. 

Sicard's part-time job as a DJ has dried up because of the pandemic. (Apt 175 Nightclub)

Sicard is trying to focus on the good times he's had at high school, rather than dwell on the uncertainty of this final semester.

"This is like a movie that you're trying to watch, and you're getting really exciting for the ending, and 20 minutes before the end it just gets cut off and you don't know how it's going to end. That's kind of like our high school experience. We don't know if we're going to finish the movie or not. Maybe we don't know how it's going to end."

With files from CBC's Ottawa Morning

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