Two surreal summers for students

Junior Spencer Grossman took part in summer school in 2020. He remembers the experience as generally disappointing. 

“Because it was a new environment for everyone, I think that I would’ve learned more in person,” he said. “[But] if I were to take the same course after doing a year of e-learning, then I probably wouldn’t be affected by the environment. I guess summer school gave me something to do—not that I looked forward to it.” 

That idea of something to do, anything, was rare during the summer of 2020 for ETHS students. Mostly, the summer was defined by a lack of activity. And as the summer went on, this new COVID lifestyle became normal. Masks became just another accessory, practically an extension of one’s self. Going on drives became going on walks. Vacations and in-store shopping were things of ancient legend.

And then, in what seemed to be both ten seconds and ten years, it was summer again. But this time, it was a little different. After a year of all virtual everything, the summer of 2021 showed signs of returning to some semblance of normalcy—and a chance to reflect on the time that had passed since the start of shutdown.

During quarantine, Evanston teenagers continued working adapted versions of typical high school summer jobs. Junior Isabel Aldort worked as a math tutor throughout the summer of 2020. She faced many challenges that students and teachers alike can understand. 

“It’s so much harder than tutoring somebody in person because you can’t reach over and see what their work looks like and draw on their paper,” she explained. “I have so much more sympathy for teachers. To teach for a whole year like that? I cannot imagine having to do that, for more than one kid as well.”

Junior Laura Peterson has worked at the Evanston Farmers Market for three years—during summer 2019, 2020 and 2021.

My boss dealt with [the pandemic] very appropriately. She changed the whole layout of the market, took away many hands-on things, like the kids activity tent, certain events involving sampling and our restaurant vendors,” Peterson recalls. 

“In summer 2020, the market opened late, so I worked even less than I would [regularly] in this seasonal job. In 2020, we started counting the number of people coming and restricting amounts in certain places,” Peterson said. “We were VERY strict on the way that traffic was flowing; we’d correct every single person to go in the right direction or place so it wouldn’t inconvenience anyone. We made sure to sanitize surfaces often and to remind everyone to stay six-feet apart and practice other COVID-19-safe measures.”

Peterson remembers that despite the precautions, working during the summer was still entirely dangerous for her and everybody around her. 

“There was always a risk heading back to work that I had to take,” Peterson says. For all of 2020 and most of 2021, the Evanston Farmers Market had masks required. When CDC guidelines made masks optional, the Farmers Market followed the IDPH instead, keeping the rules the same. 

“No change was made at the market even when faced with [a lot of] criticism. We followed the IDPH guidelines, which were different than the CDC’s—which a lot of people don’t realize,” says Peterson. 

All in all, Peterson remembers the last two summers working as a positive experience—not to say it wasn’t spattered with frustration and inconveniences. “One big impact of working in such a busy place was being extra careful in my social life and work life. None of my friends were working at the time, so I was the only one interacting with others. I made sure to always go the extra mile to be safe to keep everyone I know safe.”

Unlike Peterson, many Evanston teenagers experienced a lack of social connection during the summer of 2020, remembering their summer as less than ideal. Their social lives were halted in their tracks to make way for the tsunami of real life. To keep up with everyone around them, teens needed access to specific opportunities and a set of certain skills. But not everybody had that. 

“In the beginning of that summer, it was harder to interact with my friends. I was wearing my mask all the time because the vaccine wasn’t out,” said sophomore Kaia Cmarko. “I think later in the summer was when I started getting more social because things were opening up a little bit more.”

By the time the summer of 2021 came around, however, the landscape had changed. COVID-19 vaccines had arrived. Restaurants reopened. Most summer school courses were in-person now, and, for some, it was the first time in the building for over a year. 

Junior Alice Lavan experienced a huge shift in almost every aspect of school between e-learning and attending this most recent summer school session in-person. 

“The transition to in-person learning in summer school was really refreshing—to be in a classroom with other students and be learning face to face, regardless of the subject I was learning. It just made all the difference to be able to engage with other people and interact. [In-person summer school] interrupted the monotony of online learning that went on for so long,” Lavan recalls. 

That transition back to in-person learning will be particularly challenging for the incoming freshman class of 2025. They’re being thrown into the deep end, with little to no preparation or understanding of how ETHS works. 

Isabella Martinez was in seventh grade when COVID-19 hit, and now she’s preparing to go into her freshman year. COVID-19 destroyed a lot of the opportunities that the upperclassmen received as freshmen. 

“The places I can go and hang out with friends are limited, as well as the amount of volunteer work I can do, causing it to be hard to connect with people,” Martinez said. “[This summer], I am starting to think more about my plans for my future. I felt nervous earlier this summer about freshman year, but I just finished a Prep to ETHS class that teaches you how to navigate the school, so now I feel more prepared.” 

For us all, the last two summers have been— to put it nicely— absolute hell. Socially, emotionally and educationally, we are all a little bit stunted, as much as we don’t want to believe it. 

Aldort has been verily aware of this obstruction during the last two years, as well as the growth she’s seen in herself and the world around her. 

“[I kept thinking,] I’m wasting my teenage years. [At the start of quarantine,] we had so many campfires, so much time sitting in the backyard. But then as summer ended, the anxiety came and said, ‘You’re not going to be able to see people when it’s 10 degrees outside because you’re going to freeze your butt off,’” Aldort recalls. As a whole, however, she views the last year as a year of growth over anything. “[This past year,] I’ve gained a lot of friends. I’m so much busier in 2021— this has been the busiest time of my life.

“I like summer 2021.”