by Justin Fernandez, Ajmaanie Andre, Kymani Hughes, Krystal Li and Angely Peña-Agramonte, Urban Health Media Project

Hannah Corcoran had her plan in place: after graduating from high school, the Miami teen wanted to attend her dream school, the San Francisco Art Institute, and major in art.

But then came the COVID-19 pandemic. Hannah was forced into virtual classes, which left her stressed, anxious, and with little time — or creative energy — to draw. In fact, she was so drained throughout 2020 that she stopped drawing altogether. 

Now, as a senior at Coral Reef High School in Miami, Hannah has been forced to abandon her plans. She changed her major to psychology once she realized the San Francisco Art Institute required an art portfolio, one she couldn’t finish during the pandemic.

“It needs time, it needs hours put into it,” said Hannah, 17. “I just didn’t have those hours in a day to study and go on Zoom, and after school when I did have time, I just wanted to sleep, to relax just a tiny bit.”

After shifting to virtual learning in March of 2020, most schools have now returned to in-person classes, leaving students swamped with a whole new set of stressors. That’s especially the case for high school seniors who are behind in their race for college after losing much of their in-school support system during the quarantine and have emerged from the pandemic mentally scarred.

Throughout Miami-Dade County, seniors are struggling to play catchup as they try to find enough volunteer opportunities required for their college applications, cram for their ACT and SAT exams, all while maintaining their grades.

That combination has left seniors throughout the county, and the nation, more stressed and anxious than ever before. A majority of teens nationwide reported feeling more stressed, anxious, and with less motivation than before the pandemic started, according to a poll of 1,000 teens conducted in March by Morning Consult and EdChoice. In all, 51% of teens reported that their mental health deteriorated during the pandemic, according to the poll.

Back to school, but not back to normal

After more than a year of isolation, the first challenge seniors faced was simply walking into a school with hundreds or thousands of students crammed into hallways and classrooms.

Anite Augustin, 17, a senior at Miami Lakes Educational Center, said she became “a shut-in” during the pandemic. Her family and her boyfriend are asthmatic and have underlying medical conditions, so she decided to self-isolate in order to make sure that she was doing her part to keep them safe. 

When she returned to in-person classes in August, she was terrified by the “sea of students” clustered in the hallways. Now, she suffers from social anxiety and has lost her ability to focus in class or be able to socialize in the clubs that she leads. 

“If someone sneezes or coughs, I literally stop doing my work to look at them for a good four seconds,” she said. “Instead of thinking about my work, I’m thinking, ‘(What if) if this person has COVID, or what if they’re sick and they might get me sick and then I go back to my family and I get them sick.’”

That constant state of anxiety following every cough has resulted in many students struggling to maintain their grades and productivity.

Naomi Zahid, a senior at the School for Advanced Studies Homestead campus south of Miami, Florida, said it upsets her that students at other schools don’t have the same level of mental health counseling available at her specialized public school.

Alyssa Jones, 17, is a student athlete at Robert Morgan Educational Center who won the state 3A high jump last year and recorded the highest jump in the country (5 feet, 11.5 inch). She’s had scholarship offers from schools including Texas Tech, the University of Florida and the University of Southern California. 

But Alyssa has her heart set on Stanford University, which requires student athletes to be accepted into the school based solely on their academics before they can receive athletic scholarships. She had a 3.82 GPA as a junior, but Alyssa said her grades have suffered her senior year as she returned to in-person classes, leaving her worried she wouldn’t be accepted. 

Alyssa eventually got into Stanford, but the stress she experienced was felt by countless seniors. 

The average student lost a third of a year to a full year’s worth of learning in reading, and three-quarters of a year to more than a year in math since schools closed in March of 2020, according to a report released in October of 2020 by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. 

“It did throw off my rhythm a little,” Alyssa said. “Usually for the first quarter, I’ll get more A’s than B’s. But this quarter, I got a lot more B’s and only a couple A’s.”

Lack of help leaves seniors struggling 

As seniors continue to struggle, many say their schools aren’t recognizing the problem or providing enough resources to help them out.

Alyssa, the track star at Robert Morgan Educational Center, said her school canceled student-to-student tutoring that used to take place after class. The school stopped the practice over social distancing concerns, and Alyssa said she and other students have suffered because of it.

Sometimes students explain in a better, more simplified perspective than the teacher, so that helped a lot with whoever was being tutored,” she said.

But students say the biggest failure from their schools is a lack of mental health counselors. And it’s been hitting seniors especially hard.

The pandemic created mental health and economic challenges that have resulted in fewer high school seniors applying or attending colleges and universities. Nationwide, undergraduate programs saw a 3.4% drop in admissions in the Fall of 2020, followed by an additional 3.2% drop in the Fall of 2021, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization that tracks education data.

Anite, the Miami Lakes student who developed social anxiety during the pandemic, said she also suffered from sleep deprivation due to the stress she felt throughout last year. But she couldn’t get help because she didn’t even know her school had a mental health counselor.

“It would’ve helped me tremendously,” she said.

The one mental health counselor at Coral Reef, a school of more than 3,000 students, has been responsible for helping students return to school after serious mental health problems. 

“Having one counselor do every single thing for every single little problem that has to do with mental health, I don’t think it’s helpful in the end for a lot of people,” said Isabelle, a senior at the school. 

The American School Counselor Association recommends that each counselor is responsible for no more than 250 students. But in Miami-Dade County, the average is one counselor for every 454 students, according to county data.

At private schools, charter schools, and even specialized schools within the public school system, the situation is completely different.

At the School for Advanced Studies Homestead campus, a specialized public school in the southern end of the county, senior Naomi Zahid said they have so many mental health resources available to them that counselors approach students, not the other way around. While some schools have one counselor for hundreds, or over a thousand, students, the 73 seniors in Naomi’s school have multiple people they can turn to. 

The school has a full-time mental health counselor, a school therapist, and an extra therapist who is brought in every Tuesday to provide extra help. Each month, students at SAS have mental health check-ins and are given in-person presentations that offer information on topics such as open-mindedness and being supportive of friends.

“There’s never a time where we don’t have someone to talk to,” she said.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools said it has taken many steps to respond to the increased need for mental health services as the district’s 329,337 return to in-person classes this year.

The district has hired 20 mental health coordinators and 100 part-time mental health professionals to rotate throughout the district. And the district has provided “extensive professional development activities” to administrators, teachers and counselors to prepare them for the mental health issues students would be facing following the pandemic. And many school officials have been trained in Social and Emotional Learning (S.E.L.) to help them identify and treat the mental health problems experienced by students.

“Miami-Dade County Public Schools strives to meet the mental health needs of students in a timely fashion,” the district said in a statement.

Seniors helping each other

But area seniors say it hasn’t been enough and, in some cases, have taken matters into their own hands.

Toward the end of last year, Hannah and Isabelle created a club dedicated to relieving the collective stress that they and their classmates had developed since COVID-19 began.

“Last year definitely drained a lot of people,” Hannah said. “Because of how stressful last year was, it’s dragging onto this year and a lot of students have fallen behind.”

So they created the “Mindfulness Club.” The club holds meetings that teach students how to practice meditation, yoga and self-help. They conduct activities like painting rocks with positive, inspirational messages. And they created “Mindfulness Mondays” where students practice meditation in the school gym.

“I guess I just wanted to create a safe space where everyone could focus on their mental well-being and focus on staying present and listening to their emotions without judgment,” Isabelle said.

The ultimate goal, Hannah said, is to help students deal with all the pressures they’ve been facing coming out of a pandemic and running straight into a complicated, chaotic senior year.

“A lot of students feel that they’re not the only ones that go through this, that stress is just a normal part of being a student, which it really shouldn’t be,” she said. “If it gets bad to the point where you’re getting bad grades because of it, it’s definitely something you should be able to talk about.”

Fernandez, Andre, Hughes, Li, and Peña-Agramonte are high school students at Miami Lakes Educational Center and Coral Reef Senior High School in Miami. Urban Health Media Project mentor-editor Alan Gomez advised assisted the student reporting team.