In March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic shut down school buildings across Michigan. No in-person classes. No extracurriculars. No in-person anything.
Sheltering at home, high schoolers had to figure out how to study remotely, often while their parents worked remotely nearby. Some turned into caregivers for younger siblings; some got Covid-19 themselves; some had relatives who were hospitalized or died.
And through it all, the Class of 2021 had to keep up the grades, fill out the applications, and write the essays that would decide where life takes them next. These are three of their stories.
“I’m honestly surprised by how much [the closure] affected me,” Martha Laramore-Josey says by phone. “I do love being around my friends … but I also value my alone time a lot … But as the year went on, I definitely got sick of being by myself all the time.
“It was hard. I found myself missing the really casual relationships from school–the people I’m not really friends with, but that I was sitting next to in class or passed by in the hallway.”
Laramore-Josey’s dad works for Bose Corporation, “like the headphones,” she says. “My mom works at the Black Stone Bookstore & Cultural Center in Ypsi.” Laramore-Josey was planning to go to college to study theater.
In the fall of her junior year, Laramore-Josey starred in the Pioneer Theatre Guild’s production of Matilda the Musical, about a kind and caring girl who developed magical powers and overcame obstacles.
“I really took away how inspiring theater can be,” she emails later. “I had the opportunity to talk to little girls after the show that were so excited to see a Black Matilda, to see someone who looks like them up on stage.”
“Martha is the most amazing student on the planet,” says Chris Woods, her Pioneer counselor. “She is incredibly intelligent. She’s incredibly empathetic. From the time I met her as a ninth grader, she’s just been connected with people. And she’s also a very talented singer, actor, performer. So much of her existence changed when all that was taken away.”
“Miss Woods reached out to me with emotional support, letting me know that she was always there,” says Laramore-Josey.
Woods chairs Pioneer’s counseling department, and she and Sara Vance jointly handle senior programming. While their roles did not change through the pandemic, Woods says, “how we had to perform our job changed significantly. Working remotely, it was really difficult to connect with students. Learning new technology–like Zoom–was challenging–and really, just trying to locate some of our kids. Some of them sort of fell off the grid.
“Even some of my top students who have never failed a class before in their entire academic career were in situations where they were either in danger of failing, or failed, a class first semester,” says Woods. “I’ve never had that happen before.”
Some parents told her that their son or daughter never even left their bedroom. “And that became a problem because they were just marinating in that bedroom all day long, with academics on their phone, watching Netflix,” Vance says. Having a routine really saved the day for many students. Getting outside was really important.”
The pandemic, Woods adds, “kind of pulled the curtain on the haves and the have-nots, because students that in general were doing better had their own bedroom and their own laptop, another monitor, noise-reducing headphones, and a lot of home support, and things like that.”
Laramore-Josey “certainly has that,” Woods says. “Martha is also a very optimistic person, and she has a really good way of seeing the best side of things and people. So I think that was protective for her–and being hopeful.”
A number of schools had already made standardized tests optional for their applicants, and many more did so, at least temporarily, during the pandemic. For students applying to those schools, Woods says, she and Vance counseled their seniors: “Don’t bother. Don’t worry about the SAT.” But Laramore-Josey took the test.
She filled out an online application at CommonApp.org, and sent it to EMU, Oakland University, Spelman College, and, for early admission, Barnard College in NYC.
Syed Ahnaf says he began thinking about college “almost as early as five years old, honestly.” But early in his high school career his grades slipped when he was distracted by a family issue. He was aiming to get them back up in his junior year, in time for his college applications.
He made progress, but less than he’d hoped: at the start of the pandemic, many winter-term classes became pass-fail. Last fall, he also missed his senior season on Pioneer’s football team.
“I’m not gonna lie to you,” he says. “Emotionally, spiritually, physically and mentally, it’s been a taxing year for all of us.” When we spoke in May, he had just gone back to in-person learning two days a week. He said it felt like the first day of school.
Anhaf’s parents, immigrants from Bangladesh, both have master’s degrees. “They have high expectations for him, as they should,” says Vance, his counselor. She affectionately calls his mother, Masuma Kahn, his “Bengali Tiger Mom,” and says she likes the title. “But a lot of these kids who already had circumstances, Covid only exacerbated everything.”
“Me and Miss Vance go back for almost three years now,” Ahnaf says. “We keep in regular contact. This year, especially, the talks we had were much more grades-related, much more academically-based, because there was a lot of uncertainty.”
When asked who was most helpful to him during this difficult Covid year, Ahnaf doesn’t have to think about it. “First and foremost, my mother,” he says. “She is the most diligent woman. She has her moral compass always in check. She always taught me from a young age, no matter what, keep your eye on the prize. And getting into a good college institution has always been a goal of mine.”
Kahn, a special ed teacher assistant at Lawton Elementary, “sacrificed her own time,” he says. “She put her heart and soul into raising me.”
He also credits former Pioneer assistant football coach Joe O’Connell, who the students called “Coach OC.” “He’s a very disciplined and studious man,” says Ahnaf. “He always kept us going and always pushed us. He took us to new levels–‘levels that we thought were unattainable. Like ‘one more rep, one more assignment.’
“That’s something that was preached by my parents as well. I got a lot of good discipline and ethics from both my parents and my coaches.”
Though it wasn’t consistently obvious from his grades, Vance says, Ahnaf “has it in him to be exceptional academically.” He took the SAT and submitted his scores with his applications: the U-M, Michigan State, the University of Washington, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of California-Berkeley, UCLA, and Michigan Tech.
The pandemic scrambled the admissions process at the other end, too. “We had to pivot quickly, like everyone else,” says Paul Robinson, U-M registrar and, since last July, interim vice provost for enrollment management.
At the time, he recalls, no one knew how bad the pandemic would be, or what on-campus experience students would have–if any.
“It turned out more challenging and worse than we imagined,” Robinson says.
U-M received 10,606 in-state applications and 54,415 out-of-state applications for the 2020 fall term. Dean of admissions Erica Sanders read thousands of them.
“Everyone was impacted,” she says via Zoom. Recognizing what applicants were going through, “we looked at everything in context over time, rather than looking at one semester.
“Test scores have been one of many factors for us in the past,” Sanders says, but this year, Michigan had declared itself “flexible” on requiring them. So “we really had to rely on other information on the application” to make decisions.
They ended up admitting close to 16,000 students, expecting about 6,800 to enroll. They usually aim for 6,600 but added a buffer, Robinson says, “because of the uncertainties with Covid.”
They ended up with more than 7,100, slightly more in-state than out of state, and with just a couple hundred international students. Reflecting the year’s uncertainties, says Sanders, close to 1,000 of them came off the waitlist. Fortunately, a new system called Slate let them quickly extend admissions offers to waitlisted students, who then “could go to a dashboard and select it very easily.”
Edwin Zishiri’s parents, both physicians, were caught in the Covid crisis. His mother, a hospitalist, was working in the Covid ward.
His dad, a cardiologist, wasn’t treating patients for Covid, he says, “but he was treating people with heart problems who also had Covid. That was pretty scary.”
While his parents were working, Zishiri was at home with his sister, now thirteen, and their baby brother, who just turned four. They “got really close,” he says. “When you’re basically in the same house, all day every day, you learn a lot about each other.” He’s glad he got the chance, because he knows that after this summer, he may never be able to spend so much time with them again.
Zishiri kept up on his studies–his schedule at Greenhills School included five advanced placement classes. But for for a change, he had some time on his hands. The varsity hockey season had just ended when the lockdown hit, and lacrosse, which would have followed it, was cancelled.
Though Greenhills’ counselors were just turning their full attention to preparing his class for the college application process, Zishiri decided not to stress about it. Instead of doubling down on academics, he says, he “did a lot of random stuff:” he tried out veganism, mastered his recipe for banana bread, and composed instrumental music on his electronic keyboard.
When it came time to write his personal statement on his college application that fall, he talked about the music as well as the U-M research he’d done since tenth grade. “I presented myself as being a well-rounded person interested in a lot of things,” he says, “and that’s honestly true.”
His parents, he says, “wanted me to apply to the top schools.” So that’s exactly what he did: he sent off applications to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Duke, Michigan, the University of Chicago, Columbia, and Brown.
Is there any bright side to the Class of 2021’s pandemic ordeal? Vance, the Pioneer counselor, sees one: she’s seen some seniors “make a huge leap in maturity.
“They appreciate their family more. They appreciate school more. And they have realized that there’s more out there than what happens in the school building.
“They may not even realize it until a couple years out, in college,” she says. But then, “They may say, ‘Wow, that was a powerful experience.'”
Martha Laramore-Josey is on her way to Broadway this fall. Not to a theater, but to 3009 Broadway, the Manhattan address of Barnard College. She was accepted for early admission last December. She plans to continue to do theater there, but post-pandemic, she’s thinking of majoring in sociology or psychology.
“I think my parents are definitely nervous about my living in New York City,” she emails, “but they’re both very supportive and excited for me! I’ve never seen the campus before, but my mom and I have a trip planned for mid-June to go visit.”
Syed Ahnaf is bound for Michigan State. An uncle who went to State now works for Google, he says, and “I’ve always wanted to go into computer science.”
Still, he says “it feels a little ‘bittersweet–sweet being the fact that I’m happy that we’re starting to return to normal, but that was my second semester of my junior year and almost the entirety of my senior year, gone for good.”
Edwin Zishiri got into every school he applied to. His college tour had been canceled, so to decide, he turned to the Internet.
Not to the schools’ online webinars–“in all honesty, they all begin to sound the same”–but to students’ YouTube, Reddit, and Instagram.
He liked the strong community he found through Yale’s African American House. So this fall, he’s headed for New Haven.
This article has been edited since it was published in the June 2021 Ann Arbor Observer. The attribution of a quote has been corrected.