Published June 13, 2021
Michael Peña is trying to keep it light.
Peña, a high school biology teacher, teases his students about spending another year together — one where they could actually learn together in person. “Come on, it will be fun.”
It’s around noon on a Friday in May. A handful of Peña’s students have shown up masked and in person in his biology classroom at Mariner High School in Everett, but most are attending class online. Peña will end the school year saying goodbye to many students who have mostly stayed out of sight, behind blank Zoom boxes, as they’ve learned at home for months.
When students don’t speak up, Peña jokes about how he once struggled as a chemistry teacher. Protons, neutrons, electrons — it’s tough to teach what you can’t see, he tells them.
For several weeks, Seattle Times reporters spoke with Peña about how to capture students’ thoughts and feelings about what they learned and experienced during a year when they were mostly invisible to their teachers and peers.
is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. The Seattle Foundation serves as fiscal sponsor for Education Lab, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Amazon, Comcast Washington and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab
Like how his student Destiny Aguayo, 16, sang her feelings out — and learned to cope when her grandmother was hospitalized after contracting the coronavirus. Or how Kenny Thompson, 16, learned to talk more openly about his emotions and work through anxiety. Or the fear Bethany Nguyen, 16, felt every time she went to church or left her house, not only worried about catching the coronavirus, but also alarmed by the rise of assaults and other crimes against Asian Americans.
Another teacher, Raymond Tsang at Franklin High in Seattle, also wanted to find a way to understand what his students, who are mostly new to the United States and learning English, took away after a year online.
Reporters Hannah Furfaro and Dahlia Bazzaz and engagement editor Jenn Smith worked with teachers around the region to develop a class assignment that asked youth of all ages to reflect on what they learned about themselves, what challenged them, and what activities, objects or people helped them cope.
The nine students profiled here were among dozens who responded to those questions. Reporters visited these students’ schools, and photographers Erika Schultz and Amanda Snyder worked with them to capture their portraits and images of artifacts that represent their interests and passions. In interviews, students spoke with video journalists Lauren Frohne and Ramon Dompor about finding power in independence, learning to talk through their feelings and connecting more deeply with family.
Their responses help give shape to how our youngest generation struggled through school and the real world over the past year. Their reflections are also a reminder of how resilience and growth are born from loss and hardship.
When their outside worlds shrank, many students turned inward to grow. Their homes became their classrooms.
Some forged stronger bonds with their siblings or developed a stronger sense of self. Kent Elementary sixth grader Levi Arriola, 12, realized his passion for math and his transgender identity.
“A lot of people are coming out of the closet because they have more time to themselves,” he said. Levi feared that people would stop liking him when he shared his identity and pronouns. Instead, he found that many people supported him. “I feel confident in myself, but I'm still trying to find out how to come out to new people.”
That confidence, he said, helped him better focus on his studies and gave him a new desire to help others.
Some said the pandemic helped them realize the importance of personal responsibility. “I now know I can help stop a pandemic,” wrote Jabir Ahmed, 11, a Kent Elementary fifth grader. “I aspire to help stop pandemics like this in the future.”
Daniel Mondragón, 20, an English language learner and a senior at Franklin High School, spent the pandemic volunteering at a hospital and as a Spanish tutor, staying steadfast to his studies and applying to college. He was accepted at Seattle University and plans to study social work.
Said Daniel: “I just want people to know that [it] doesn’t matter how difficult something can be, there are ways to get [through] those situations, you just need something that inspires you.”
Even though I think I’m an introvert, this quarantine made me realize I really want to go out. I am more aware of how I study. I aspire to help stop pandemics like this in the future. I now know I can help stop a pandemic, and I know what challenges me is not being able to explore or get outdoors.
- Jabir Ahmed, age 11, Kent Elementary School
As an ELL (English Language Learner) student, I’ve learned about myself that patience is very important, especially with all of the things that were happening, not only here but everywhere around the world. I just want people to know that it doesn’t matter how difficult something can be, there are ways to get through those situations, you just need something that inspires you.
School is an example. Education is very important in your success. If you have been dedicated at something you can do big things. After all, I feel like schools were ready and prepared for many things and that is amazing. Teachers and counselors help me a lot throughout these times and I want to say thank you for everything you have done for us and for getting us ready for a better life.
- Daniel Mondragón, age 20, Franklin High School
The activity that was really important to me during the pandemic was spending time with my family, especially my Grandma because I didn’t know what was going to happen or how much time I had left with her.
One important activity that helped me during the pandemic was learning how to cook because I got to spend time with my family and learn family recipes.
- Valeria Lopez Martinez, age 11, Kent Elementary School
The crisis brought students face-to-face with grief, frustration and loss — emotions that compounded the social and academic toll of a year away from their friends and teachers. They struggled with anxiety. Some lost family members, or felt unsafe because of racist attacks on the Black and Asian communities. Young kids lost out on learning how to share and play.
They stared at black screens on Zoom school. Some felt the crush of silence — an eerie sense that they were alone. Others couldn’t find enough quiet — constant interruptions at home kept them from participating in class or studying.
Valeria Lopez Martinez, age 11 and a Kent Elementary sixth grader, struggled to connect with classmates she’d never met. And she was separated from her relatives in Oaxaca, Mexico, and constantly feared that she might not be able to see them again. “I didn't know if they would be OK,” she said, choking back tears. She lost both of her paternal grandparents, one to COVID-19 and one to a heart attack.
Cooking became an important pandemic activity for her -- time she spent with loved ones and learning family recipes, like tamales. She challenged herself with complicated recipes like cupcakes and mole. “I learned that I could accomplish things,” she said. “I could, like, give it my best.”
On a sunny spring Friday afternoon in May, teacher Denisha Saucedo met Valeria and two other students and their families outside Kent Elementary. Meeting many of them for the first time, Saucedo bounced between each family to introduce herself and sing each child’s praises.
“This pandemic has forever changed the way education looks,” she said. “And though it was ready for a makeover I hope that we remember those students that found their light in a time of darkness.”
COVID made me sad because I really wanted to go to the park. But what made me happy is a hug from my mommy.
- Zia Ferzli, age 5, Queen Anne Elementary, with her mom Diane Ferzli
What I learned about myself during this pandemic is that I like math and that I found who I am by being trans — my pronouns are he/him. Yes, I am aware about my studies. What challenges me is asking for help.
- Levi Arriola, age 12, Kent Elementary School
During this pandemic I learned that taking a mental break from things is very important. I also really learned how to be able to work through some of my problems individually!
Some of the challenges I have faced over this last year have been battling my anxiety individually. It has been pretty challenging because I did not really feel like I had the support I used to have before the pandemic. When having anxiety it helps to be surrounded by people.
I hope schools reduce the number of kids in classes like now! I feel like it is easier to focus with (a) smaller number of kids in the class. I also hope schools maybe keep every Wednesday a stay-home work day so that we have time to study and do our work more thoroughly rather than rushing. I also feel like teachers are more helpful with lower number of kids in class.
- Kenny Thompson, age 16, Mariner High School
In Priyanka Jayanthi’s Queen Anne Elementary kindergarten class, students sought refuge in their toys. To keep from thinking about the coronavirus, 6-year-old Benjamin Breiner played with his toy shark, a hammerhead named Hammy. His classmate Zia Ferzli turned to snuggle her stuffed cat — or sometimes to embrace her mom, Diane Ferzli.
Youth say that finding distractions, and diving deeply into new or beloved hobbies, helped them push through difficult days.
Some wrote letters to friends when they couldn’t meet in person. Others went on hikes or found other ways to spend time in nature. Creating art took on a new weight: Their canvas, their photographs, their music became outlets to show others their pain.
Feeling love from parents, teachers and mentors helped, too.
For Destiny Aguayo, a student in Peña’s class, life was upended when she moved in with her father and took on new responsibilities as a big sister.
“After school (one day), I got picked up by my dad and he was like, your grandma's in the hospital” with COVID-19, Destiny said. “But she was able to survive it, even with all of her underlying health problems and situations that she has. We are so thankful that she is still here with us today … I don't know what I would have done if she had died.”
With school closed, she found a reprieve from stress by painting, drawing or dancing in her room to music.
When she felt she might break, her family stepped in with loving words and support. Some nights, she just let herself cry.
“I'd be able to just cry and break down at night when everybody else is asleep. And that's like helped me throughout the day.”
I learned that I can be very artistic if I tried but I also learned that I get very anxious and stressed a bit easier than before. I also had to learn how to be a bigger sister every day for my little brothers.
I had to go through a sudden change of where I live. I used to live with my grandma for basically my whole life but she got COVID and was put into the hospital and so I had to live with my dad.
Listening to K-pop has helped me out with some things that are stressful. I hope that school slowly goes back to normal for us to talk and hang out with friends.
- Destiny Aguayo, age 16, Mariner High School
Hammy, a toy hammerhead shark, brought comfort, especially “snuggling and sleeping with him.”
- Benjamin Breiner, age 6, Queen Anne Elementary
During the pandemic, I learned that I needed to talk and socialize more than I originally thought. I thought texting every now and then would be enough, but even introverts still rely on friends.
It was difficult dealing with loneliness over the last year. Being on Zoom deprived me of so many essential social cues, the eye contact, body language... Nothing could compare with being at school, being able to see my peers.
What really helped me through the last year was art and videogames. Art is a way to express myself, projecting my suppressed thoughts, emotions and inspirations through the characters I make. And with videogames, even when it was with random people online, it helped me socialize and feel like myself.
- Bethany Nguyen, age 16, Mariner High School
Teachers Michael Peña at Mariner High in the Mukilteo School District, Denisha Saucedo at Kent Elementary, Raymond Tsang at Franklin High in Seattle and Priyanka Jayanthi at Queen Anne Elementary in Seattle who contributed to this project.