Camryn Neal, a senior at Hampden Academy, has had a positive experience transitioning back to full-time, in-person school. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

When Bangor High School temporarily switched to remote learning due to COVID-19 cases last school year, Jaeda Grosjean spent much of her time trying to adapt to the demands of studying via screen.

“I just sat in my room all day and stared through a screen and did work,” Grosjean, 15, said. “I didn’t learn well that way because I personally learned better from person-to-person teaching instead of online as if it was a video.”

In addition, she struggled to connect with her fellow classmates in the school book club, as the group’s meetings were held remotely throughout the school year. “It was super hard to connect them to reality because I would be sitting at my computer and these people would be talking, but it just kind of felt like watching a movie, so I didn’t interact as much,” said Grosjean, now a sophomore.

Now, students have been back in school for a few weeks for a school year that was supposed to resemble a normal one. While schedules are mostly back to normal and extracurricular activities are again happening in person, the first few weeks of school have been characterized by regular reports of COVID-19 cases, universal masking in most schools, and occasional quarantines and temporary shifts to remote learning.

Still, students say their ability to reconnect with friends and teachers in person after 18 months of adjusting to a rotation of remote, hybrid and in-person learning has made a turbulent opening to school more manageable.

A closer-to-normal school year has addressed some of the gloom and despair many students experienced at the height of the pandemic, said Dr. Sally Cooper, the medical director for child and adolescent services at Spring Harbor Hospital in Westbrook.

“Kids are excited for school, even with masks,” she said.

Nationwide, teenagers have experienced myriad mental health challenges related to the pandemic, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation report. In May 2020, two months after the U.S. declared coronavirus a pandemic, 29 percent of parents reported that their kids’ mental health had suffered. That October, 31 percent said that their kids’ emotional or mental health was worse than before the pandemic.

Lockdown measures were disorienting for many kids who relied on the routine of school for structure and social contact, Cooper said.  

“Their job as teenagers, developmentally, is to find their place in the social group,” she said. The pandemic deprived them of that opportunity and the ensuing social isolation of lockdown drove many to despair.

Cooper said that while she works with the most “desperate” ones, many teens experienced feelings of hopelessness that drove them to engage in more extreme behaviors, such as substance use or suicidal ideation.

“Once that feeling of a future, or hope for future, starts to go, one loses one’s grip and things can spiral downwards very quickly,” Cooper said.

While Regional School Unit 22 has seen a number of cases since school began, Hampden Academy senior Camryn Neal’s return to school has been relatively smooth.

“It hasn’t felt this normal for me in a while,” Neal, 18, said. “The only thing really [abnormal] about the school year is masks, and I guess for what the school year could be, I’m perfectly OK with how the school is running, and overall it’s just been a really positive experience so far.”

A number of Orono High School Counselor Troy Wagstaff’s students spent the last school year in a suspended state of anxiety about falling ill or getting close family members sick. It was hard for him to reach some students who opted to attend school virtually and ensure they were attending class on time or at all.

“We basically treated every kid like they had an anxiety disorder,” he said.

Neal said that even though she did better academically last year learning part-time in person and part-time remotely, she’s been looking forward to attending her senior year in person full-time as she applies to colleges. She plans to play basketball in the winter and softball in the spring.

At Bangor High, Grosjean is taking four classes daily that meet for 80 minutes each, a departure from Bangor High’s pre-pandemic schedule. Prior to the 2020-2021 school year, students attended eight classes a day for 40 minutes each. The schedule change limits the amount of contact students have with classmates.

“I personally like it more because I can take more accelerated and honors classes, and not have to deal with as much homework as if there were eight classes a day,” Grosjean said.

Student clubs are back to holding in-person meetings, making it easier for Grosjean to connect with other students who are in the book club and a teen mindfulness group. She also plans to rejoin the art club when it starts later this semester.

Both Wagstaff and Sam Runco, co-principal and dean at Orono High School, said they’ve seen marked improvement in students in the days since the school opened its doors for the new year on Aug. 31.

On a recent day at Orono High, students milled around, yelling to one another and joking as they passed each other in the hallways. The only difference from a non-plague year was that they were wearing masks. One girl wore a gray t-shirt that read, “If You Can Read This, You’re Too Close.”

“There’s more energy in the halls now,” Wagstaff said. “There was less last year, it was more subdued.”

He’s seen a few students act out occasionally, fueled by “drama” and social media rumors, a sign things are slowly returning to pre-pandemic operations.

“We had no behavioral problems last year,” Wagstaff said, which “wasn’t normal.” More students have reached out to him in the days since school started, seeking support and asking to be connected to counseling resources.

The focus now is on rebuilding trust between students and teachers after a “hard 18 months,” Runco said. Students meet in small groups for 12 minutes at the beginning of each day, ensuring they have a dedicated time with the same adult every day to talk about what’s going on in their personal lives.

“We’re going to continue to work hard, work as a team and try not to live in worry,” Runco said.

Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.