Few friends, online classes: Prince William Co. graduates detail challenges of starting high school during pandemic

Marakie Yilekal, left, and Anjali Ghafoerkhan, are recent Prince William County graduates. (Courtesy Prince William County schools)

Marakie Yilekal was eager to start her freshman year of high school at Osbourn Park High School in Prince William County four years ago.

She suspected it probably wouldn’t be exactly how it’s portrayed in movies, but she was nonetheless excited about the prospect of meeting new friends, taking new classes and starting a new chapter at the Virginia school.

It was fall 2020 — the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yilekal was one of many students across the country starting a new school year in front of a computer screen, instead of at a new school campus.

Now, those students whose first years of high school were disrupted by COVID-19 are graduating and reflecting on the legacy the pandemic had on their high school experiences.

They’re laughing about how they used to log on to Zoom to attend class and sometimes would be staring at blank boxes because classmates didn’t always have their computer cameras turned on. And they’re recalling the isolation they felt at home instead of the excitement they were expecting to experience.

“My COVID experience was definitely tough starting off,” Yilekal said. “Starting off not being able to make as many friends as I had initially expected, it was really rough.”

Yilekal wasn’t as active on social media in her early high school years, which made meeting new people exceptionally challenging. She relied on friends she made outside of school to navigate the uncertainty.

“We could all just figure out a way that we could somehow stay sane during that time because it wasn’t easy,” Yilekal said.

She and her sister were both participating in virtual classes at the same time, so they’d listen in from the kitchen table. In between classes, they’d talk about how the period went. They created and followed a strict schedule because “it’s easy to get off track with that,” she said.

Anjali Ghafoerkhan, meanwhile, would be up on time for her classes, but sometimes, she’d roll out of bed and log on. Then, after her first class, she’d brush her teeth and have breakfast, and then sign back on.

“It was just very odd,” Ghafoerkhan said. “You log in, and you were lectured at or just showed a video, which is obviously different from my middle school experience, where we had more hands-on activities.”

Ghafoerkhan, who just graduated from Gar-Field High School, similarly missed out on the socialization. She lost contact with many friends, largely because “we were in our own individual rabbit holes.”

While Yilekal remained at home for the whole year, Ghafoerkhan returned in-person toward the end of her freshman year. But even that wasn’t the same.

“There was like nobody there,” Ghafoerkhan said. “You just sat with the plexiglass in front of you and the teacher way up front. We were both on the Zoom meeting, so I would just say that the whole year is essentially virtual.”

Both Yilekal and Ghafoerkhan said they and their friends talk about the impact of the pandemic sparingly, but it does come up. For Ghafoerkhan, it came up in the context of math classes, because sometimes she felt behind. Her teacher hosted exam prep sessions on Sundays at a local Wegmans. Yilekal and her friends sometimes talk about social distancing and other COVID-19 precautions.

Ghafoerkhan will attend Harvard in the fall. Yilekal is going to the University of Virginia.

“It’s funny to think that life was like that a few years ago,” Yilekal said. “Now, it’s almost pretty much back to normal.”

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Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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