As Mass. moves to relax mask rules, students say COVID is still taking a toll

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Josiehanna Colon, a senior at New Mission High School in Hyde Park says "COVID schooling" has always been weird, and the omicron surge was just another strange plot twist.

"It felt like a lot of my classmates were getting picked out of the class," she said. "They were just gone. We didn’t know if they had COVID or not, they were just gone."

Colon found school eerily quiet during the surge, and there were several days when teachers didn't begin new lessons because so many students were out.

Josiehanna Colon is a student at New Mission High School in Hyde Park. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Josiehanna Colon is a student at New Mission High School in Hyde Park. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Across town at Excel High School in South Boston, Thy Nguyen says the disruption of another COVID wave was yet another blow to her morale.

"I haven’t learned anything when going to school," said Nguyen, a senior. "And so I think that’s why many of us don’t have motivation anymore, because we don’t do anything at school."

It’s been almost two years since schools in Massachusetts closed indefinitely and made a hard pivot to remote learning.

Today, all public schools are in-person again. And state officials say kids and teachers can take their masks off at the end of this month, if it's okay with local officials. But many students say the upheaval of the pandemic is still taking a toll.

Nguyen explains that she has always been very careful about COVID. She does her best to avoid crowds and always wears a mask. Still, when the omicron surge hit, that wasn't enough. Nguyen caught the virus. Luckily, she says, she had a mild case.

The hardest part about being sick was being away from school and missing out on even more class time.

"I was disappointed," said Nguyen. "I have too many things to do at school and too many goals."

Thy Nguyen is a student at Excel High School in South Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Thy Nguyen is a student at Excel High School in South Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Memories of the first COVID wave, which began in Massachusetts with an early documented case in February 2020, haunt many students. Nguyen says her motivation took a nosedive when all her classes went online the next month, and it’s been hard to build her energy back ever since.

When the omicron surge was peaking, Nguyen and Colon say they had this nagging fear that school leaders might bring back remote learning again.

"I was like, 'Oh no, let’s not go back to that,'" Colon remembered thinking. "I knew that if we did, my grades were going to fumble, and my mental health would go back into the hole that it was."

Still, Colon's feelings were complicated. She worried that her grandmother, who is currently her legal guardian, might get sick if she brought COVID home from school. Her anxiety was significant enough that she took part in a recent walkout organized by students, who called for education leaders to do more to protect the school community.

Citing the concerns of students like Colon, Boston's mayor has said public schools will continue to require face masks, even after the state mandate lifts at the end of February. In some other parts of the state, schools have begun moving away from mask requirements, especially where vaccination rates are high.

State officials have also asked colleges and universities to relax pandemic restrictions.

Joshua Correria, a University of Massachusetts, Amherst student from New Bedford says he has conflicting feelings about the precautions introduced to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. He knows that safety measures such as social distancing saved lives, especially in 2020, before there were vaccines.

But the precautions made him feel isolated, and he feels they came at a critical time in his life when he was starting to make the shift to adulthood and figure out what career path he wants to take.

"It's definitely scary," said Correia. "I don’t want to give up the very important developmental years of my life to a computer screen."

21-year-old Joshua Correia attends UMASS Amherst. (Photo courtesy Joshua Correia)
21-year-old Joshua Correia attends UMASS Amherst. (Photo courtesy Joshua Correia)

While he feels fortunate that no one in his immediate circle has a health condition that severely elevates their risk from COVID, for Correia it has been difficult to watch dreams of a college experience that would broaden his horizons become dimmed.

"To have a large part of the population now start to recede, be more isolated, not go to as many events and try to be more safe, it reduces the number of people you get to meet, the amount of perspectives you get exposed to," reflected Correia. "I am concerned my experience is getting a little tunnel visioned."

Colon says her life track has also been impacted by the pandemic.

"Pre-COVID, I’d probably be trying to get into the best colleges, maybe an Ivy League school. And maybe I’d be getting scholarships for academic excellence," she said. "But because COVID did happen, and because my academics suffered tremendously, my choices have been a little bit limited."

COVID has changed Nguyen’s plans, too. She now hopes to study education policy in college, which is a big shift from her pre-pandemic plan. Nguyen says she realizes the pandemic has been painful for a lot of people. For now, she feels grateful for a new direction that can get her excited about school again.

"Before [COVID] I wanted to be a pharmacist," she said. "But since then, I changed my goal and my passion."

This segment aired on February 14, 2022.


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Carrie Jung Senior Reporter, Education
Carrie is a senior education reporter.



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