Donal Washington Credit: Donal Washington

After schools closed in early March 2020, Donal Washington, 16, looked forward to what he hoped would be a normal upcoming school year playing sports and socializing with peers.

But not long after the doors closed, he suffered a tremendous loss. In July, his mother died of pancreatic cancer, he said. About a month later his school, Leland High School announced it would reopen virtually due to a spike in COVID-19 cases. All sports were cancelled until further notice.

“That was kind of hard for me because we couldn’t really have a funeral for her. And it’s kind of hard navigating through school,” the 11th grader said. “This is like my first time without my mom being in the picture.”

Washington, an honors student coping with his mother’s death and little social interactions, felt unmotivated to do his work. He said he did not learn as much as he would in a traditional school setting. 

Isolated from immediate family, friends and teachers, Washington hoped school could bridge the social divide. Instead, the coronavirus pandemic amplified the problems, such as failing internet connection and assigned busy work. This meant he could not reach teachers for assistance on assignments, or stay connected during virtual classes.

“It’s harder doing virtual. When we have work to be done … there’s something wrong with the internet either at home or at the school. Sometimes we don’t get as much learning time,” Washington said. “In some of the classes we don’t have teachers. They just give us work.”

As a coping mechanism, he took comfort in learning new skills, picking up old hobbies, talking with siblings out of state and spending time with his father and stepmother.

With students around the state scheduled to return to school this month, Mississippi Today recently spoke with several high school students who shared similar stories of isolation, loss and resilience as they navigated through their first semester of school during a pandemic.

Washington, like other students living in rural parts of the state, experienced connectivity issues which are a hindrance to online learning.

Thousands of other students enrolled in virtual learning struggle to engage, connect and learn through online instruction although the Mississippi Department of Education worked last summer and fall to ensure all students had access to technology and devices. 

Harold Rhodes Credit: Harold Rhodes

Harold Rhodes, a 12th grade star athlete at Jefferson Davis County High School, also faces this issue. He said he can’t complete school work sometimes because he lives in Bassfield, a rural area with strained service. He said he also feared the lack of exposure in sports because a limited football season could cost him a sports scholarship. 

“We used to travel around the state down here to get exposure and to get better. And I didn’t get to do much of that this summer because of COVID. So now I’m just playing sports down here at my school,” Rhodes, who plays tight end, said. In addition, Rhodes plays basketball, baseball and runs track.

Once the season began, Rhodes’ worries of being recruited calmed. College coaches still reach out, he said.

For Bethany Miller, a junior at Yazoo County High School, her responsibilities have doubled. She attended school on a hybrid model before her school building closed due to a COVID-19 outbreak. At home, she must complete her school assignments virtually and take care of her 5-year-old sister while her parents are working.

Bethany Miller Credit: Bethany Allen

She said she feels alone and stressed at times because of her new responsibilities, and she can’t get immediate feedback with classwork or bond with classmates in or outside of school. 

“We have a schedule at school where we have to eat in our class, then it’s six feet a part at all times. That’s our lives,” Miller said before her district switched to virtual learning. “It takes a village because I know my mom wants to help out. She wants to be able to help my little sister and be there, but right now the thing is, it’s hectic.” 

Students who spoke with Mississippi Today said support from immediate family and the hope for a “normal” life helped them get through a difficult semester.

But the chances of a return to normal life are slim right now. COVID-19 infections continue to set new peaks statewide and nationally, and a vaccine likely won’t be widely available to the general public until later this year.

READ MORE: Here’s what we know about COVID-19 vaccines in Mississippi

Looking towards the future, students are hopeful. 

Washington wants to travel more.

Miller wants to spend time with her friends that are seniors.

Rhodes wants to “go back to our normal lives.”

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.