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Creating a new normal: FALA juniors discuss high school in 2022

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School started for most Flagstaff students Aug.10 and, while learning looks closer to what it did in 2019, some students are hoping not to return to the pre-pandemic normal.

Two weeks into the 2022-2023 school year, Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy (FALA) juniors Lani Elias and Aeka Joshi said the school was still dealing with pandemic-related changes and challenges, but that “we’re slowly getting back on track.”

“I think this year is going to be a little intense given that we’re still dealing with what is hopefully the last vestiges of the pandemic in addition to just standard pressures of junior year and high school life,” Joshi said.

Joshi added: “As much as I think FALA is supportive of the students’ mental health and mental wellness. I do think that schools across the country really need to reassess the kinds of pressures that we’ve been putting on high school students for decades, if not longer, because in the wake of a pandemic and everything else going on in the world, I think those kinds of pressures aren’t preparing us for the ‘real world’ as much as people maybe think they are.”

Both students said they thought there should be less focus on college admissions in high school academics.

“What am I going to do now or what am I going to do after high school is probably the leading cause of anxiety among myself and my peers,” Joshi said.

Both said they valued college, but it should not be seen as the only valid option for students after high school and thought students should be taught more about other paths.

“I think a lot of students are unmotivated, now more than ever, because a degree doesn't guarantee a job and how expensive school is now,” Elias said. “I think a lot of people at this point are viewing universities as the enemy, when I think there should also be a balance there.”

Joshi said that, though change would likely have to come on a larger scale, FALA’s “real-world-based, activism-heavy classes that are teaching us to tackle problems like climate change, inequity, sexism, bigotry in a mature and balanced way that is holistic and will actually make some changes” were a good start to addressing this.

Elias also said FALA was “doing an excellent job at talking about a lot of injustices around the world and .. talking about things that I think should be talked about more.”

There were some areas, namely climate change and plastic use, where she thought both FALA and Flagstaff could be doing more.

“I think they’re just such large-scale problems that it almost feels that the little that we’re doing is almost doing nothing," she said. " ... It’s an amazing school and I think that if we really wanted to we could [do more]. I really like that about this school, because in a lot of other schools, you can try and try and try, and they’ll just say, ‘We wish you luck’ or completely disregard you.

“ ... I think Flagstaff as a community should maybe do more or strive to find solutions, because I do think that we’re running out of time and I guess it’s just frustrating. ... I wish people would work together to come to a solution.”

The students said FALA has been “very safe” this year so far in its COVID precautions. About half of the school is wearing masks, and there is less of an “uproar” against masking than last year -- which Joshi said mostly came from parents.

“I do think we’re a lot looser, as a country, as a world, maybe,” Elias said. “I do think that people are realizing maybe that [COVID is] not as big of a threat, or maybe that it's not as much anymore. It almost feels like there's so many things happening in this world that people in a way are becoming numb to some of it. I kinda feel like that's where the looseness is coming from.”

“I definitely feel like some of that numbness is coming over into academics, because I know a lot of us are really just experiencing intense burnout this year,” Joshi added. “ ... You come to school and they’re like, 'OK, time to do calculus. You’re like, calculus? The world is burning. But also, you have to do calculus. Wear some fireproof clothes and you have to do the calculus.'”

Schools took the last year to catch up, they said, but now learning has resumed its former pace.

“Last year was treated as a sort of catch-all year,” Joshi said. “This year, it seems like the pace is accelerated again -- which might just be the difference between freshman, sophomore and junior year, but it seems like the academic pressures definitely accelerated.”

She thought the school should offer additional support to students to handle that acceleration, especially since the pandemic. Elias said that while FALA’s teachers “are amazing at being understanding and finding alternatives for students that need extra help,” students won’t often reach out for help and it can be difficult for teachers to see when they are struggling.

“I kind of wish there was a little more transparency regarding [social and behavioral problems] because I feel that we don’t really know what’s going on and we don’t really know what our problems are,” Joshi said. “We’re just being told that we have problems and that there are solutions, but we’re not really seeing any large scale solutions for students that are easily accessible. Students who need help, it’s hard for us to know where to go.”

Elias and Joshi agreed that going back to normal isn’t really possible for schools, and shouldn’t be the goal.

“Everyone had their own unique experience, whether it was for better or for worse, but the pandemic definitely did do something,” Elias said. “I think schools are trying to go back to the way it used to be, quote unquote normal, but I don’t think that was really possible.”

“I definitely don’t feel like trying to get back to our old normal is going to do us any good, because that’s not our normal anymore,” Joshi added. “I was having this conversation with my mother and she was talking about how frustrating it must be to be a high school student during this. ... Ages 13-16 [for me] have been under quarantine and then still living through a pandemic. So trying to get back to the old normal isn't going to do us any good. It's just going to further entrench the wounds caused by the pandemic."

The changes they said they’d like to see have more to do with school hours than online or hybrid learning.

Remote learning meant students couldn’t succeed the same ways they did in a classroom, Elias said -- distractions came more easily and everyone had a different environment with its own challenges.

“A lot of students needed extra help and it almost feels like there wasn’t enough time,” she said. “There was a pause in the world, but at the same time, we didn’t really take back that time. We just wanted to skip over that.”

She said the pandemic hadn’t had much of an effect on her socially, but that she had struggled with online learning. While she was “super excited” to be on Zoom at first, she found herself losing motivation over time and said she saw similar experiences in her peers.

Elias did enjoy the additional freedom and flexibility that came with having shorter classes and being able to join from home. During in-person school, she said, she worried about how other people thought of her -- which was less of a concern online.

Joshi said she felt that online learning was a “net positive” for her, helping her realize “I need to get out of my shell more and that I need to take the time in high school and during my education to live the life I want to have instead of just waiting for it to happen to me.”

She also found she benefited from the school-life balance online school allowed her to have and hoped there would be a way to bring that into school as it is now.

At FALA, the school day is divided into four 90 minute periods that run from 8:45 a.m to 3:15 p.m, with a half-hour for lunch. There are also extra periods that students can opt into -- a zero hour beginning at 7:15 and a fifth hour that ends at 5:15.

Some clubs also run during lunch, Elias and Joshi said, so students in National Honors Society, the environmental coalition, student council and others are using this time for more than just eating.

Joshi said that even having half days weekly rather than monthly (as FUSD does) “could give students a much-needed respite from school, as well as teachers, who are at school often much longer than we are.”

Lessening the pressure on college admissions could also help fit everything into a shorter schedule, she said, as many students participate in extracurriculars to help their college applications.

“I think if we took some of that pressure off, students would be able to focus on what they’re passionate about and they wouldn’t be in two billion clubs to boost their application, but because they were passionate about it.”

Joshi and Elias are both considering college for themselves. Elias is interested in several areas of the arts -- drawing, filmmaking, photography, performance -- so is thinking about ways to combine them and what she might want to do.

Joshi said she’s thinking about how to get into a school with programs she’s interested in.

“Again [that] goes back to what I said about it being a major cause of anxiety among students," Joshi said, "because we lost an entire year. Even if you were able to hang on during that year, you still lost things outside of academics, so trying to play catch-up while looking to the future is definitely a challenge that I think anyone who was in high school [in] 2020 to 2022, 2023 is definitely going to be dealing with, if not more than that.”

Elias said she hoped the pandemic changes would “drive schools on a path of understanding.”

Joshi also mentioned 2020’s racial justice reckoning, saying she hoped these would “carr[y] on into more comprehensive education about systemic inequities that we have.” It hasn't changed as much in her classrooms as she'd like, she said.

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