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The learning gaps are real: A high school junior returns to class

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

American students are mostly back in the classroom. For most, the return to in-person instruction has been a welcome development. But for YR Media reporter Obse Abebe, being back in the classroom after a year of at-home learning comes with a host of challenges.

OBSE ABEBE: All those stories about kids being excited to return to school, that's not me, at least not yet. Being thrown back into the anxiety-inducing world of high school has definitely curbed any excitement I once felt about returning in person. As for academics...

OK, problem 7. If F of X equals 3x - I swear they did one like this in class.

That's me cramming for my online SAT prep class. Let's just say the pressure is on as a rising junior. It's been a real struggle to focus in my prep class. Just like my virtual classes last year, logging into class from my bedroom, I often found myself surrounded by distractions, most of which were things I'd forgotten to take care of. From clothes that were piling up to discarded drinks, it got pretty frustrating.

Wasn't I supposed to pick that up? I thought I did.

Even though I've always received good grades and taken advanced classes, the past year and a half has brought to light some of my learning issues. My frequent forgetfulness, not to mention mental health struggles and feeling constantly overwhelmed, all finally pushed me to try and figure out if I needed to get a medical diagnosis for my concentration issues, on top of the anxiety that I've been going through. And I am not alone. Nationally, teens are dealing with more stress and anxiety. Health care providers like Athenahealth saw a rise in ADHD diagnoses right after the pandemic started. I'm lucky to have at least one person I can turn to about these learning challenges and the overall stress from school, and that's my sister, Eyerus.

EYERUS: There's just so many resources that students don't have, pertaining to, like, mental health and just being taught how to juggle everything.

ABEBE: I've been able to talk to Eyerus about all the things I'm facing, from retention issues to asking for extra time on assignments and exams, including the pushback I receive trying to get an ADHD diagnosis. It's not easy because I need teacher evaluations first. So for now, I have to wait.

EYERUS: And there might be other people in your situation where they're not able to get the diagnosis that they need because of these, like, prerequisites that they have to meet.

ABEBE: As a college freshman, Eyerus understands what I've been through with virtual school and what I'm emotionally going through back in person. But in our Ethiopian family, it's not easy to talk about mental health.

EYERUS: There have been many times where I've had some really bad and unhappy days, and I would always play those off because I'm a very optimistic person. And I don't tend to share my mental health with other people.

ABEBE: When I talk to my friends, though, their worries are different. My friend Tali, who asked me to leave out her last name, is another rising junior who took pre-calc this past year. And we spent many late nights together trying to teach ourselves these difficult concepts.

TALI: Well, I kind of forgot, like, the statistics unit from the end of Honors Algebra 2 in ninth grade. So when we did a similar unit in honors precalculus, it was a little bit hard to remember, but it did not take too long to get back into it.

ABEBE: Now that we're back in school, we'll likely have more of those late nights, especially with starting our college application process this year. And as for how we're coping with starting that...

TALI: Well, I'd say it's bold of you to assume that I am coping because it's just been such a mentally and emotionally draining year that it's really hard to find ways to cope. And I would like teachers to be respectful of students' mental health and know that we've been struggling a lot and figure out some ways to adjust to that. But I can just picture myself being very anxious about everything all the time.

ABEBE: I couldn't put it into better words myself. And for my teachers this year, I hope it's OK that not every concept stuck during COVID and that we students are often teaching ourselves. But please see beyond that and get to know me behind my mask. I'll need that for college recommendations, regardless. For NPR News, I'm Obse Abebe in Silver Spring, Md.

MCCAMMON: That story was produced by YR Media, a national network of young journalists and artists.

(SOUNDBITE OF MT. WOLF SONG, "TUCANA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.