‘Life stopped’: Metro students devastated after COVID-19 closes schools

Late nights studying for tests, sweating through a coach’s instructions, laughing with friends in the cafeteria — it all now feels distant to many children in metro Atlanta.

Gov. Brian Kemp on Wednesday ordered that school buildings remain closed the rest of the school year to slow the spread of COVID-19. Schooling went online seemingly overnight three weeks ago, but many students who spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution are still getting adjusted to their new normal and processing the remnants of an academic year overshadowed by the coronavirus.

The rituals of school and classrooms will have to wait until next school year.

Except for the class of 2020.

For them, there will be no spirit week, no prom, no graduation — at least not how they pictured it.

“I just feel heartbroken, it’s like we worked so hard for nothing. I just wanted to say goodbye to my friends, but I can’t even do that,” said Archer High School senior Mikayla Payne.

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These students have overcome an array of challenges, academic and otherwise. They were born in the wake of 9/11 and have lived every moment in America’s longest war. Now, some enter higher education or the job market during a time of extreme uncertainty.

“We’re not complaining, we know people are dying, but at the same time we’re justified that we lost our senior year,” said Mikayla, age 17.

Mikayla Payne, 17, senior at Archer High School 

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If she’d known it was the last day of classes at her Gwinnett County school, Mikayla said she would have hugged the teachers who put up with her and her sometimes-bratty classmates. She would have taken more pictures.

When she goes to Auburn University, which for her has been pushed back to January 2021, none of her friends are joining her. “It feels like I have no one to comfort me right now,” she said.

And though none of the blue sequins on her dress will shimmer at prom, there’s a plan. Mikayla said she and her friends are hoping it is safe by June so they can all go over to someone’s house, wear their dresses and take pictures at a make-up prom.

The disruption isn’t any easier for younger students.

Sawyer Taylor, 10, wishes he had bid farewell to Mr. Murphy and Ms. Scott at Montgomery Elementary School in Brookhaven.

Though he’s in fourth grade, Sawyer is moving to a new school.

Sawyer Taylor, 10, fourth-grader at Montgomery Elementary School in Brookhaven 

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“I’m never going to see them again other than on video … I am going to miss them and I don’t really like talking about that,” he said.

Several metro Atlanta students talked with the AJC about how the closure of their schools has impacted them. Like Mikayla and Sawyer, most are mourning the loss.

Bria Brown, 17, senior at Grady High School in Atlanta

The last few weeks felt like a rollercoaster, said Bria Brown, a 17-year-old senior at Grady High School in Atlanta. She had an inkling on March 13, the last day Atlanta Public Schools held in-person instruction, that she might not return to the brick high school in Midtown.

“Everybody was definitely looking forward to having that last hurrah, and there is no closure now because you don’t get to say bye to your sophomore and junior friends,” she said. “There’s so many things that make a school culture what it is.”

Bria Brown, 17, senior, Grady High School in Atlanta

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Instead of planning for prom or the school’s traditional senior walk, she’s preparing to take multiple at-home, abridged Advanced Placement tests. The course load for the University of Virginia-bound student is heavy.

Her calculus, psychology and government classes are tougher to do online, mostly because she misses the community she and her classmates created. In class, they cracked jokes and thrived on their teachers’ enthusiasm.

“I haven’t lost motivation, but it feels less exciting to do the work,” she said.

At first, some of her classmates hoped they could still go on spring break. Now she’s wondering if the district will end up mailing her a diploma. APS hasn’t decided yet how it will handle graduation ceremonies.

“This was our senior year,” Bria said. “We were like the kings and queens of the school …A lot of people felt like, ‘We run the school. This is our year.’”

Ely Facio, 12, seventh-grader at Edwards Middle School in Conyers

These days, every day is very regimented for Ely Facio.

The Rockdale County student has an online class about every half hour before breaking for lunch in the middle of the day.

“It’s O.K., but it’s hard not being able to interact with people,” he said. His school uses Microsoft Teams, but they must keep the cameras turned off. He doesn’t get to see any classmates except for when he uses FaceTime or some other app.

Ely Facio, 12, seventh-grader at Edwards Middle School in Conyers 

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What bummed him out most was that soccer had just begun before school buildings were ordered closed. Ely plays midfielder and thinks he’s pretty good at it.

“I sometimes play with my dad when he has time, but it’s not the same,” he said. Ely has a high school-aged aunt who may kick the ball around a little, but she has her own interests and the sessions don’t last long.

He sighed heavily when asked how he’s holding up.

“I’m a pretty good student, but it’s tough when I have a question and I have to wait until the teacher can respond to a message,” he said. “But I understand the schools and teachers and the government are doing the best they can. I just have to be patient and focus on my school work.”

Gabriel Flores, 10, fourth-grader at Woodward Academy private school

The birthday tradition of seeing friends and eating hibachi was broken this year when Gabriel Flores turned 10 years old on Thursday.

Instead, he and his mother made chocolate cupcakes — with Sunkist soda as a raising agent because he is allergic to milk and eggs — with vanilla frosting and sprinkles at their Smyrna home.

“It’s a good birthday either way,” he said, “even if I spent it outside playing with dirt it’d be a good birthday.”

Gabriel Flores, 10, a fourth-grader at Woodward Academy private school 

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Though it is not part of the public school system, Woodward Academy also shut down its buildings and moved to online learning three weeks ago.

Gabriel said he doesn’t want to stereotype children, but he feels he is different from most kids because he likes school.

“I think school’s a great opportunity,” Gabriel said. ” … A lot of people think school’s boring and the only good part is where it ends.”

He said he finishes his online work quickly, leaving him mostly bored and missing the humor of class. But now he has more time to bond with Beauregard — the family’s half-English, half-American golden retriever — and his new hobby of making beats. He wants to go out and get a drum set once quarantine is over.

Reese McGee, 18, senior at North Cobb High School in Kennesaw

Reese McGee was in a theater rehearsal last month when he and the other members of the cast of “Newsies” got the word that their Cobb County school district would be closed for two weeks. As the two-week closure extended through March and then through the end of April, reality set in but so did the optimism.

“I had the reaction of ‘wow this must be serious,’” he said, but still thought “everything I wanted to do during my senior year was still going to happen at that point, so I was still OK with this.”

Reese McGee, 18, senior at North Cobb High School in Kennesaw 

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On Wednesday when Kemp canceled school for the remainder of the school year everything changed.

Two banquets, his last ever show and musical, senior carnival, senior breakfast, prom graduation – gone.

“It was like life stopped,” he said.

The social distancing and online learning mandated by the coronavirus is difficult for Reese. As a drum major, member of the performing arts and chorus programs and fourth-year musical cast member, McGee’s student life at North Cobb High School in Kennesaw is all about social interaction.

With the online classes, it’s become harder to keep track of things. Some of his classmates prefer it, some, “personally I wish we were back in school,” he said.

READ | Banned funerals, shuttered shops: Local leaders confront global virus

For the seniors, much of their discussions are about the coronavirus’ impact on their grades. How theirs will be calculated and how the time online school will affect their final grades on their transcript.

Reese has already been accepted to Kennesaw State University and plans to study music education. “I’m concerned about it since I’m out of school for so long this could throw me off so much going into college,” he said. For Reese and the class of 2020, the quarantine has taken away their last semester of high school. “I’m also worried that the quarantine could take my first semester of college away, that this (coronavirus) will continue and not stop.”

Lucas Holder, 6, kindergartner at Mableton Elementary School in Cobb County

This halting of school has also affected the newest members of the school system, those who have just begun their academic journey.

Lucas Holder, 6, kindergartner at Mableton Elementary School in Cobb County

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Lucas Holder attends kindergarten classes at Mableton Elementary School in the Cobb County School District.

The six-year-old said he is sad that he won’t get to see his teacher for the rest of the year.

“I love school,” Lucas said. He added that he enjoys learning math and writing.

Raina Hill, 12, sixth-grader at The Champion Middle School in Stone Mountain

The coronavirus outbreak has “ruined” the end of Raina Hill’s first year of middle school.

The 12-year-old said she’s disappointed because she and her classmates worked hard to prepare for the Georgia Milestones test, which has been canceled due to COVID-19. But her thoughts weren’t just on herself and other kids.

Raina Hill, 12, sixth-grader at The Champion Middle School in Stone Mountain 

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“I think teachers prepared great lessons for us and now they can’t really teach us the way that they planned,” she said. “It’s not the same on the computer.”

Raina feels like she’s just getting busy work.

“We get more assignments on the computer than we do when we go to school, so it just seems like something to keep us busy,” she said.

Georgia Garcia, 9, third-grader in the Buford City Schools public charter district

Her snaggle-toothed grin is the joy of those 9-year-old Georgia Garcia encounters. As the youngest of four and the only girl, she feels the love and warmth of her family every day. But the COVID-19 pandemic has her worried about the safety of her grandmother and others she cares for.

“My grandmother works at Publix and she’s around people every day,” said Georgia. “I pray for her safety and we pray for everyone to stay healthy.”

Georgia said she doesn’t completely understand what’s going on and why she can’t go to school or play with friends, but coronavirus is on the news everyday and front of everyone’s minds.

Georgia Garcia, 9, third-grader in the Buford City Schools public charter district 

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“I hear people talking about it all the time and it’s kind of scary,” she said.

She loves reading and really misses her friends and her teachers Ms. Davis and Ms. McElroy.

“It’s a lot more quiet at school,” she said. “And if I need help the teacher is right there.”

But her older brothers help and she doesn’t have to worry about bullies at home. If she could tell those in power what she’d like to see, she said she just wants the shelter-in-place to be over by summer.

“I don’t want to miss pool season,” she said.

AJC staffer Janel Davis contributed to this story. 

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