Zoom Days Weigh on Local High School Students: ‘Everything Fun About School Has Been Taken Away’

The Calhoun School. Photos by Marisa Hirschfield.

By Marisa Hirschfield

On April 14th, 2021, a group of Upper West Side mothers filed a lawsuit against Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York City School Chancellor Meisha Porter, claiming that COVID-induced school closures “put at risk the futures of an entire generation of New York City children.” Indeed, their claims reflect what some UWS high schoolers–public and private–told WSR in recent interviews: pandemic-era school has been emotionally and academically damaging.

“Everything fun about school has been taken away,” contends Willa Hart, 16, a sophomore at the private Calhoun School, on West End Avenue between 80th and 81st. Calhoun has taken on a “hybrid” format. Willa learns in person for half the week, and remains at home for the rest. This has hardly stunted her screen time, though. When in person, she logs onto Zoom for 90% of her classes, in order to communicate with students at home.

When taking classes from home, students spend most of their waking hours on screens. An average school day runs from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. These hours, compounded by those spent scrolling on social media and watching television, amount to at least seven hours of screen time per day. Often, it is much more. “I have Zoom meetings, as well as extracurriculars and homework, so I would say [my screen time is] around 10 hours,” Eloise Gordon, 14, a freshman at West End Secondary School, a public school on West 61st Street between Amsterdam and West End Avenues, told the Rag.

It is a challenge to stay engaged when so much of life has been pushed to the virtual platform. Seeing friends, sharing a meal, and riffing off each other’s ideas in class discussions used to draw students to school. Such activities do not translate well online. Class discussions are afflicted with mute-mishaps, awkward silences, and an overall dearth of fluidity. Simple pleasures like high-fiving friends in the hallways and gossiping before class are no more, as students only see each other in academic settings, under teacher supervision.

For some, the allure of school has dissipated. Eloise admitted, “I truly have no motivation to go to any more Zoom meetings.”

Fiorello H. La Guardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.

“I dread waking up in the morning to join my classes,” one high schooler, 15, under the pseudonym “Unhappy LaGuardia Student,” told the Rag. She attends LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, a public magnet school on Amsterdam between West 64th and 65th.

The pandemic is complicating the college application process for some too. Students working from home say they are struggling to prepare for standardized tests.

Studying for her Advanced Placement Human Geography Exam, Eloise says she teaches herself most of the material. “It is difficult to process over Zoom,” she says. Top universities like to see high scores on these exams, and students who have to prepare on their own are likely at a disadvantage come application time. The pandemic will add challenges to a college process already riddled with challenges.

All this – outrageous screen times, academic withdrawal, and the stress of self-education – can take a harrowing toll on students’ mental health. Not only can it exacerbate teenagers’ pre-existing mental conditions, it can create new ones.

Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School.

“I [had] no history of mental illness,” a 16-year-old sophomore at Columbia Prep (5 West 93rd Street) told the Rag. “Now I have anxiety and [battle] with depression. I have never felt like this before.”

Some students hold a different view on learning during the pandemic. With fewer tests and reduced-capacity classes, they feel they are getting a more intimate, less taxing education. They are also getting more sleep. Not having to commute means students can wake up later. Though she prefers learning in-person, Calhoun student Hanna Bauman says she “wouldn’t mind revisiting online school.” Eloise, at least, would like the option each day.

Others are less conflicted: “It’s a total mess,” Unhappy LaGuardia Student says of pandemic schooling. “Never in my life will I ever wish to join a Zoom [again].”

“Never never again,” the Columbia Prep sophomore agrees.

Perhaps with the hasty vaccine rollout in New York, inoculated high schoolers will return to learning in-person, in full, soon. Perhaps, then, Unhappy LaGuardia Student will be unhappy no more.

Marisa Hirschfield is a sophomore at Ethical Culture Fieldston School.

NEWS, SCHOOLS | 15 comments | permalink
    1. Working From Home says:

      Everything fun about my job is gone too!

    2. UWS Teacher says:

      Almost everything fun about teaching is also gone. I am so so tired of talking to little circles and reading the chat out loud. The good news is, at my school more kids are back in the building, most of them them five days a week, and we are starting to hear laughter and talking in the rooms again. But with half of my student body still at home, it’s hard to make classes what they once were. Fingers crossed that the overwhelming majority of parents will send their kids back in the fall!! I really hope remote leaning is only offered as an option to medically fragile students.

    3. Scott Matthews says:

      Excellent work Ms. Hirschfield!

    4. Caleb Pollack says:

      Schools are not reopened, as the Dept. Of Ed. would lead people (with no NYC public school kids) to believe.

    5. another West Side parent says:

      You can sue DeBlasio all you want, – he doesn’t control when (and if) schools reopen. Thank the Teachers’ Union – only they have the power and the final say whether our kids can return to school. I read a comment from one Union member responding to a question about vaccines that said something to the effect that “but vaccines are not 100% effective” – and that was very revealing

      hope i am wrong but i doubt it

      • Frankie says:

        “Everything fun about school has been taken away,” moans a Calhoun student. Well, that would be true for people in many areas of life during the pandemic. As a teacher, I know all about the limitations, frustrations, and exhaustion of Zoom learning, but students and their parents need to remember that this isn’t something anyone chose – it’s not as though teachers are arguing for the pedagogical benefits of virtual learning. It’s the best we could come up with, and until everyone is vaccinated, we are stuck with it. As a parent who paid Calhoun tuition bills for 15 years, I know that’s a tough pill to swallow.

        • another West Side parent says:

          Hi Frankie – I gather you are a teacher… Can you please tell me what do you mean by “until everyone is vaccinated”. Are you talking about teachers receiving the vaccine (which has been available for them in New York for a least a couple of months), or “everyone-everyone” including students, newborns, people with legitimate conditions, and stupid antivaxxers? Because you know – that’s never going to happen.. I honestly just trying to understand what is the position of teachers in New York with regard to re-opening schools full time and whether there a chance schools might re-open in the fall. At one point you personally would agree to come back? Does the science matter now if only to increase the capacity of the hybrid model (CDC recommendation to reduce the distance between students from 6 feet to 3).

          Thank you in advance

          another West Side parent

    6. West Side Lawyer says:

      This state of affairs absolutely is something people chose. It didn’t happen by some outside force sprinkling magic dust.

      I’m beginning to worry that we’re never really going to come out of this. There were more people in masks outdoors yesterday afternoon than there were in late May 2020. The complete misperception of risk that people have is a dreadful failure in our processes of informing the public and has nothing to do at this point with the proverbial “science.”

    7. sg says:

      So sorry to hear this, but I’m not surprised. The peripheral impact, including the mental health issues highlighted here, of Covid is ultimately going to be worse than the disease itself and much longer lasting.

      Shame on the teacher’s unions who have continued to think only of themselves and not “the children”. What an entitled group of individuals. It sickens me to think that my tax $$$ funds the nonsense…and I feel very sorry for the many good teachers who do have the best interests of the kids.

    8. NYYgirl says:

      Apparently my original comment was unpublishable for some reason, so I will modify and try again. People who choose to be bothered here (and elsewhere) by those who wear masks outside can equally choose not to look at the mask-wearers, and bashing the teachers union may be fashionable these days but that doesn’t make it right. Try thinking about the teachers who are either high-risk for age or health reasons, as well as those who have their own school-age children who may or may not be in school this year.

    9. West Side Lawyer says:

      So then Manhattanites should just immediately cease any people watching?

      If you’ve been vaccinated, you aren’t “high risk” for anything, regardless of age or health status. That’s the whole point of a vaccination. The science — actual science — of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is that they’re around 95% effective and dramatically reduce symptoms/threat if you’re unlucky enough to have a breakthrough. Given that reality, there’s nothing scientific about wearing a mask. At this point, it’s entirely psychic.

      • NYYgirl says:

        The remarkably uncrowded vaccination sites, people who haven’t shown up for their second shots, herd immunity “unlikely to happen”, global travel, variants, yup, sounds bothersome. People wearing masks outside? Meh. (Btw, apparently it also helps the allergy sufferers!)
        Sorry about your people watching, lol.
        PS We love our wonderful and dedicated teachers.