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‘It’s really devastating’: Students feel rites of passage denied as schools stay closed into the fall

Kahlila Williams
Kahlila Williams will be a senior at Girls Academic Leadership Academy.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

The first day of school loomed larger than ever this year. Inflated with both anticipation and fear amid a great pandemic, it was to be the release from five months of confinement, the end of what largely amounted to the longest, hardest and most boring of summer breaks in generations.

So for many students, the momentous decision on Monday to postpone the opening of schools in Los Angeles landed with a dull thud of disappointment. No catching up with old friends or finding new ones, no sports, no dances, no plays, no Friday night lights, no messing around in the halls, no vigorous classroom discussions — no end in sight.

Worst of all, for teenagers in particular: no escape from home.

The coronavirus surge convinced Los Angeles Unified School District leaders that even with precautions and social distancing, the risk was too high to open up campuses on Aug. 18.

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Josh Coleman had transferred to Dorsey High School as a sophomore in February when schools closed a month later. A star quarterback with a 4.0 GPA, he couldn’t wait to get back in class to start making new friends. He was hoping the district would go through with plans to have students rotate through school, attending two or three days a week, filling the gaps with online learning.

“I think that should still be an option,” he said. “It’s really devastating we can’t go back.”

He worries about friends who have “tough things going on at home.”

“Being at school is the only positive thing going on in their day,” he said.

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Josh said few students logged into the online classes the school offered in spring. “That was a big drop-off. There were eight or nine students in classes of 30 or 40.”

Ella Dennis, a rising senior at Cleveland Charter High School, said her humanities classes suffered in the online environment. She had two periods in spring on the role of race in society.

“My teachers would give us a lecture, one or two students would ask a question,” Ella said. “It’s hard to learn when you’re listening to lectures or [looking at] a PowerPoint. You just see words on the screen. It’s not enough. It’s definitely difficult to get things done in this kind of environment.”

She realized how much support she got from personal contact with friends and teachers.

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“After class, I would go over to them. They would cheer me up, and then I’d go to the next class,” she said.

It’s the moments in between classes that Isaias Vaquerano misses — seeing his friends, saying hi in the hallway, asking his teachers about their families, decompressing from one class to the next.

Isaias, an incoming senior at Belmont High School, planned to do drum line in fall, wrestle in winter and run track in spring.

But now he’s not expecting to do most of that — even though the district says it will open schools as soon as it is safe.

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“I’m just kind of bummed, but I think I might be able to join the drum line when I go to college,” he said. “So I’m kind of thinking about that. And the same thing with sports too.”

Isabelle Marroquin was having mental health challenges last year in eighth grade and decided in January to switch to an online school program. When she started studying at home, she didn’t know the practice would soon become the norm.

“Eventually, I started getting tired of it. I started missing physically being in a classroom, seeing everyone, socializing with people,” said Isabelle, who is gender fluid.

Isabelle was eager to get a new start next month as a freshman at Panorama High School, where she’d try out for the basketball team and join an LGBTQ+ club.

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Now, Isabelle isn’t sure how she will meet her classmates. She doesn’t know if extracurriculars will continue online and is dubious basketball will have a season. And she finds it difficult to focus on class while she’s at home.

“Obviously the decision to have online school this year was really disappointing,” she said.

But for many students, that disappointment doesn’t mean they disagree with the superintendent’s decision. Instead, they are frustrated that the country hadn’t made more progress in keeping the virus at bay.

No one in Kahlila Williams’ group text was surprised by the news.

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“At least we know for sure — instead of that suspense of waiting until August,” said Kahlila, a rising senior at Girls Academic Leadership Academy.

Between the spike in coronavirus cases, the uncertainty of the superintendent lately in his weekly announcements and the school board at meetings, Kahlila said they all saw this coming.

When they left school in March, there was an unspoken understanding that students and teachers wouldn’t see each other for a long time.

“How it was handled in the first place was really ... unprepared for,” she said. “I kind of felt like they should have never told us two weeks” would be the length of the shutdown.

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Kahlila is disappointed she won’t be able to plan her last homecoming, or hold Black Student Union meetings in person. But now with time to plan, she can organize virtual BSU meetings and still plan a robust Black History Month, she said.

These events are weeks or months away — but Kahlila doesn’t envision being back in class anytime soon.

“We’re most likely not going to be back to school by November with all the precautions and able to have a homecoming,” she said.

Nyslai Bolanos, a rising senior at UCLA Community School in Koreatown, said she is relieved that her classes will remain online this fall. She said the county’s decision indicates that school administrators care about student health. She just hopes the COVID-19 outbreak eases up enough that she can do her last semester in class.

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“A lot of us are still hopeful that it will open for spring semester when prom happens,” she said.

But she, too, is already looking beyond that.

“Even though the pandemic took some experiences away, I know that I will have years of college experiences coming up,” Nyslai said

Ella, at the Cleveland Charter High School, says last year as a junior she felt sorry for all the seniors losing their big rites of passage: spring sports championships, prom and graduation.

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On Monday she was feeling a bit of dejá vu.

“Now that I think about it, my senior year might not even be anything,” she said.

Times staff writer Sonali Kohli contributed to this report.


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