Wisconsin seniors on how COVID-19 shaped their high school experience

Class of 2024 started freshman year at the height of the pandemic, transitioning from middle to high school in a virtual world

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Seth Wenig/AP Photo

High school seniors across the state are walking across the stage and gathering their diplomas. But the graduating class of 2024 is unique. They entered their freshman years at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant transitioning from middle to high school in a virtual world for many of them.

WPR spoke with four seniors to understand how the pandemic shaped their high school experience. These students touched on losing social skills and the boredom of staying at home. But they also talked about growth and empathy — and how growing up during a global crisis shaped their perspectives on what it means to be part of a community. Here’s what they told us.

These interview transcripts have been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Olivia Campbell, Divine Savior Holy Angels High School in Milwaukee

Olivia Campbell graduated from Divine Savior Holy Angels High School in Milwaukee. She lives in Whitefish Bay. She’s one of many students who started their high school career amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Olivia Campbell.

COVID definitely impacted my high school experience. It was a lot harder to make friends in the beginning because of hybrid scheduling and having to be socially distanced. I think it posed an extra challenge going into a new school where I didn’t know as many people and trying to meet new people. 

I played a sport at the beginning of high school, and that really helped me find new friends, because (the sports) still continued even throughout COVID.

But I think it definitely taught me how to be more outgoing and to be able to try and connect with people even when there is a distance barrier or when we all have masks. 

Maryangeliz Acosta Mass, Madison East High School

2024 high school senior Maryangeliz Acosta Mass.
Maryangeliz Acosta Mass graduated from Madison East High School on June 8, 2024. She’s one of many students who started their high school career amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Maryangeliz Acosta Mass

Honestly, the transition from middle school into high school was pretty rough, because that was during virtual learning time — so coming back to high school just felt like I was continuing my middle school journey. … But thankfully, all the teachers that I had back then helped me to get back on track, like, “Yo, this is high school, like here’s the things that you need to focus on.”

In middle school, I used to be a very social person. During COVID, I didn’t talk to nobody, and I lost all those skills. Coming back, it was awkward, like, “What do I even talk about anymore?” … But there was this class that I was in, it was Spanish class … mainly for Spanish speakers. And there I got to meet a lot of people that were just like me, and after feeling comfortable enough to talk to them, I gained back those skills to talk to other people.

Being stuck at home made me realize how grateful I am to be out there in the world, and to take advantage of all those opportunities that are out there. 

I will be going to UW-Madison … my hope right now is to become a school psychologist. So after majoring in psychology, hopefully I would go to get a master’s degree. And after my master’s degree, I want to go back to East High School. Literally, all I’m thinking about right now is just all the kids that I’m gonna help out in the future.

Aidan Mueller, Vel Phillips Memorial High School in Madison

Aidan Mueller.
Aidan Mueller graduated from Madison’s Vel Phillips Memorial High School on June 8, 2024. He began his high school career during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Aidan Mueller

In the first one-and-a-half to two years of high school, it was a bit of a struggle to transition from being completely virtual and having no idea what in-person high school was like, to suddenly being at in-person high school and having to essentially relearn everything.

My ability to socialize was extremely impacted, because I had no chance to really socialize with anybody outside of my family who I lived with and friends online … which I think was detrimental in later years when I needed to expand my social horizons and I had no idea how. I’ve definitely improved vastly since sophomore year, and it just took a lot of practice and patience with myself.

Being shut in and having to do everything online, I think that’s definitely shaped both my experience and just the general experience of this generation. Everything’s a lot more internet focused. It’s kind of weaning off that a little bit. But still, it has forever changed how we learn and how we communicate with people 

During COVID it was a lot easier to not do schoolwork. So I had a lot more time to focus on my hobbies and interests, which I think was very pivotal for me, because I discovered and rediscovered a lot of things I was passionate about, and I think that’s definitely impacted how I will be living moving forward.

Emily Gonzalez Rivera, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Milwaukee

Emily Gonzalez Rivera recently graduated from Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Milwaukee. She lives in West Allis and is one of many students who started their high school career amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Emily Gonzalez Rivera

I was in eighth grade when it first spread and I would have never thought that a pandemic would have affected my education. But here we are. Honestly, it was kind of a whirlwind. Like just kind of everything was thrown at me. Online school, having to worry about turning in assignments that aren’t on paper anymore, and then having to join meetings.

It was all just kind of like a very different experience that I was very afraid of, but then once I got the hang of it, and I was able to just understand what was going on, that’s when I was like, “OK, like, I think I got this.”

Also, like, considering the experience that I was in eighth grade when the pandemic was around, and then having to go to a new school and not knowing who everyone was, and, like, not even be able to see their faces, because most of the people hid their faces or just didn’t turn their camera on, it was a little weird.

But once sophomore year hit, that’s when people were coming back into school in person, it was like freshman year all over again, basically.