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Virginia High School Senior Reflects On His School Year During The Pandemic

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Throughout this school year, we've been checking in with families and educators on how they're juggling learning during a pandemic in a series we call Learning Curve. This week, we'll hear from Nathan Onibudo. He is a senior at South County High School in Lorton, Va. When he's not in his virtual classroom, working on college applications or running track after school, he serves as the student representative to the Fairfax County School Board. He is the sole student representing nearly 200,000 fellow students to the people who supervise one of the largest public school systems in the country. He helped the school board navigate the tough decisions to pivot from hybrid learning to a virtual model for this school year. And he joins me now.

Welcome to the program.

NATHAN ONIBUDO: Hi. Nice to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It is great to have you. I'm not sure this is how you expected to spend your senior year, learning at home. How are you doing?

ONIBUDO: (Laughter) No, it's not at all how I expected to spend my senior year, but I'm doing OK.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Tell me a little bit about some of the challenges you face, some of the things that you've been experiencing.

ONIBUDO: I guess one of the biggest things that everyone is experiencing is virtual fatigue. I mean, after spending a full seven hours on your laptop going to school, you know, you have to do your homework or your college applications or your FAFSA applications, your scholarship applications all on your laptop. And then any clubs or anything like that you were previously involved in are also on your laptop. So I think that is just the big overall summation of what's going on.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Now that we are seven months into this pandemic and several months into the school year, what are you hearing from your community? Other than Zoom fatigue, what are the specific concerns you've had to field or pass on to the school board?

ONIBUDO: One of the biggest ones is workload. It's been really difficult because the virtual model was set up in a manner to mimic the in-person schooling model. And that is because the criticism that we got from the spring was that it was too lenient on the students. But the workload has been a little bit too much for students. And that's an issue I've been hearing from student representatives in Flounin (ph), in Prince William and in my county as well. I've been trying to voice that concern.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think your peers want? I mean, I imagine in such a large school system, there is a huge diversity of opinion. But do they want to be back in person? Do they feel better being at home and safer from the pandemic?

ONIBUDO: Students across the board, particularly the ones who are well-resourced, who have parents also working from home who can support them, don't really mind the virtual environment as long as our school system can find a way to make it more sustainable for teachers and students alike by lowering expectations and allowing for grace in this setting. But there are students who don't have those resources at home or otherwise to kind of let them access distance learning, even though they may not be in a particularly priority group that's already been let back into the buildings. And those students really do want to be back in the school buildings.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think teachers want? I mean, you're not representing them here, but obviously, they are the other part of the equation in any classroom.

ONIBUDO: Yeah. I mean, I think teachers truly want two things - what's best for their health and what's best for their students. I never had a teacher who didn't care about the students that they were teaching. However - and sometimes in this current setting - what's best for their health can often be a competing thing than what's best for students. And it's really hard for them to reconcile that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: College for you - that's a big next step. How are you feeling about that?

ONIBUDO: Extremely, extremely nervous. I mean, I cannot tell you the amount of nerves that are just generally around the senior population right now because, you know, we're reading headlines about how class of 2020 deferred their admissions. We might be competing 2021 for less slots at these universities. Our junior grades, for many of us, were kind of messed up by the pandemic. And, you know, we're being told our senior grades, as a result, weigh more heavily because we don't really have that full year of junior grades to go off of. So all of that creates kind of this perfect storm of stress that seniors have to kind of, you know, navigate and hopefully successfully come out the other side with a college admissions decision.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: With all that on your plate, I must ask - you know, normally, senior year's full of milestones - homecoming dance, football games, you know, prom, graduation. How are you trying to make it memorable?

ONIBUDO: It's been tough. Some of this stuff are the last things we'll ever get to do with these friends that we've made over the past five, 10 years of our lives. And that's really important because if we don't get closure, you know, we may not be that successful in our college environment. So we've kind of had to play this really, really difficult balancing act, but I think we're doing it pretty well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nathan Onibudo is a senior at South County High School in Lorton, Va., and a student representative to the Fairfax County School Board.

Thank you so much.

ONIBUDO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.