Am’Brianna briefly tries to ascertain what her teacher is talking about, then turns back to the paper in front of her, work left over from a few days ago that she still needs to finish. The noise surrounding her is distracting, but she’s behind, and scrambling.
The fact that Am’Brianna is working hard on assignments is a victory in itself, a return to normalcy and an improvement over last winter, when she all but dropped out of Burton High School, brought down by depression and a broken laptop. She and her classmates are thrilled — or maybe relieved — to be back for their senior year of high school.
But the damage wrought by over 18 months away from classrooms lingers at Burton, a high-poverty school in a high-wealth city, overlooking the whole of San Francisco from a hilly peak in the southeast corner of the city. Burton — the students who rely on it and the teachers who power it — is a study both in joy and in enduring trauma, a place where everything seems normal, but nothing is quite as it should be.
It’s a transition underway all over the country this fall, but especially in urban school districts, such as San Francisco’s, that barely reopened for in-person classes last school year. In an ironic twist of the pandemic, students like Am’Brianna, who arguably need school the most, got the least of it. Now they are trying to recover.
At Burton, there aren’t enough teachers or substitutes, so teachers are forced to cover classes they know nothing about. The wellness center gets a regular rotation of students who need a few minutes alone or time with a counselor. More students are tardy than ever before. Administrators keep breaking up fights in the hallways, sometimes over dumb stuff, like when a boy hit other kids over the head with condoms he got from the wellness center.
And yet the pure pleasure of being together is real, too. It pours out of Eirik Nielsen’s classroom at lunch, where the K-pop club is meeting once again, bouncy tunes and bubble gum videos filling the room. It shows up in physiology class, where Ryan Yu and his classmates roll colorful clay into balls and pancakes to show the parts of the epithelium, the tissue around a cell. It bangs and beats from the school marching band, where Am’Brianna again lifts a flute to her lips and joins her classmates in bringing the school fight song to life.
For students like Am’Brianna, the stakes are enormous. High school is her ticket to college, and college is her way out: out of poverty, away from a mother who she says she fights with and who causes her enormous stress. The past year has only complicated her exit plan.
“My main goal,” she says, “is to get out of California.”
Joy in calculus, and drumming
Throughout the many months of remote school, Ryan Yu longed to pound his snare drum — a real drum, not the drum pad in his bedroom that served as a dull substitute. He longed to practice alongside the rest of the Burton High School Marching Band, with the loud metronome keeping time.
Ryan was excited to learn in October that the United States Marine Band was coming to campus for a lunchtime show and Q&A. But the event conflicted with something else more important to him. He had struggled with a calculus problem the night before, and wanted help at lunch from his teacher, Nicholas Hom. So he stopped by Hom’s classroom for a one-on-one explanation.
Hom held his pencil on its side and shifted its angle over the graph paper in front of the pair, showing how the angle changes as the slope of a curve shifts.
“Okay, so you’re saying the slope number here is the points on this graph?” Ryan asked.
“Exactly,” Hom said.
Ryan missed the band show, but he had his teacher, right there in front of him, showing him how to do the math, something he never got when he was learning at home.
Pre-pandemic, Ryan’s whole world was friends, drums and sports. When all of that was suddenly taken away, he found himself spending hour after hour online — not just at school, but deep into the night, playing video games with his friends over the text, voice and video app Discord, which allows friends to play together.
It caught up with him. In August 2020, he started to notice a ringing in his ears that would not go away. His doctor said it was tinnitus. His ears may have been damaged from the drumming, or maybe it was ear phones day after day. The ringing was always there. A few nights lying in bed, the ringing so loud he could not sleep, Ryan wondered whether he wanted to keep living.
“I was just like, it could be easier to just, like, take myself out,” he said.
He still hears the ringing. It’s loudest when the room is quiet: when he’s taking a test, or doing classwork, or trying to go to sleep. It’s still there, loud and constant. The difference now is Ryan knows he wants to live.
Now he finds joy in small things. At the start of the day, he meets his buddies in the cafeteria, where they crowd around a circular table and scarf down the free breakfast, cracking jokes. As the hallways fill with students changing classes, Ryan finds his girlfriend, Faith, and they walk through the crowded hallways hand in hand, sharing a light hug before parting to their respective classrooms. And during band class, he pounds his drum, leading the percussion section: BA-DA-DA-DA BAH-DA-DA-DA-DAH!
“I felt, like, free, if that makes sense,” he said.
Trying to recover
Am’Brianna overslept, had been up too late the night before, and arrived one recent morning with just enough time to stow her lunch in her third floor locker and rush to English Literature before the bell. Unlike last year, she’s enrolled in regular English, not Advanced Placement, so instead of analyzing “Othello” through racial, feminist, Marxist and historical perspectives, she’s in a class where “The Handmaid’s Tale” is read out loud for the students.
It’s just one on a list of impacts that might be rightfully pinned to the pandemic. Last semester, Am’Brianna virtually dropped out of school, not showing up for classes for weeks at a time. This year, she didn’t want to push herself too far or too fast. Am’Brianna is also not enrolled in AP Government. Eirik Nielsen, who teaches the class, blames the pandemic for that, too.
Nielsen taught Am’Brianna AP World History during her sophomore year, when in March 2020, school abruptly shifted online. Am’Brianna struggled that spring, battling computer failures and spotty WiFi. She made it to the AP test, scoring a 2 on the five-point scale. Nielsen, a veteran history teacher, believes she would have scored at least a 3, which is passing, had school been in person. Am’Brianna figures she did all right given that her WiFi went out in the middle of the exam.
During her junior year, Am’Brianna pushed forward with a challenging schedule, including AP English Language and Composition. The first semester was going reasonably well when, just before Halloween, her laptop fell and the display was broken.
A few weeks later, she got sick with a high fever, shakiness, headaches. By January, with the start of another semester stuck at home, she had grown depressed and stopped going to school almost completely.
“I knew I had no way to get the work done,” she said. “I couldn’t leave the house. I had no social interaction.”
At school, she was used to hugging everyone she knew, and she knew a lot of people. Now it was “24/7 with only my family,” she recounted, and a litany of conflicts with them, big and small. She lives with her mom, her grandmother and her great-grandmother, who at age 96, struggles with dementia. Am’Brianna was often responsible for watching over her.
Her AP English teacher, Victor Zou, saw signs of intense anxiety and burnout in Am’Brianna. She would miss weeks of class, then show up. He’d talk to her about how to bring her grades up, and “then she’d be gone again.” Calls and emails from Zou and her counselor made little impact on her mental state. Her grade in English was a D for the third quarter. By April, she reengaged, and Zou justified a B for the semester.
By then, she had recorded 40 days absent in AP English, 36 in Ethnic Studies and 35 in U.S. history.
For her senior year, Am’Brianna opted out of AP English and AP Government. If school had been in person last year, Nielsen said, he believes Am’Brianna would have come into her senior year with a stronger academic record. When it came time to recruit students for his AP Government class, he would have given her the hard sell. He would have reminded her how much she liked his AP World History class sophomore year, and promised her she could drop out of AP Government if she didn’t like it.
“I would have been in her ear the whole time … in a way that is reminding her that she is valued,” he said. He said he would have told her, “I need Am’Brianna’s voice there in my class because a lot of these kids, we’re going to be talking about political issues. They need to hear your voice.”
Told this, Am’Brianna laughed. Would Nielsen have succeeded? “Probably,” she said.
‘So far behind’
While Am’Brianna opted out of AP Government, her schedule was still crushing her.
“I am one stressed kid,” she said.
Arriving to precalculus, she took note of all the work she still had to finish. “I’m so far behind on work, missing assignments everywhere,” she said.
Later that day, in her college-level Psychology of Sex and Gender class, she had her head down again. She was behind here, too. A check of her portal showed four late assignments, with her grade hovering at 37 percent. “I finished the math work,” she said, settling in. “I have a lot of psychology to be worried about now.”
At home, she said, the power went out recently, taking the WiFi with it. The WiFi still was not on, and she could not do homework at home.
“We think it’s the bill, but I’m pretty sure we paid it off for a few months, so it shouldn’t be due right now,” she said. “But I don’t know. We’ll figure it out.”
During a Zoom lecture, delivered by a university professor remotely into the Burton classroom, about half the students were scrolling through their phones, munching on the provided pizza and otherwise zoning out. Am’Brianna was taking careful notes.
As soon as class was over, she rushed out of Burton to catch the 29 bus, which would take her to the train, which would take her to a program called 100% College Prep, where she would start planning for a future after high school.
‘I felt cornered’
Junior year left Jonathan Tran feeling more responsible than ever for the people he lives with: the single mom who raised him, the grandmother he confides in and the 4-year-old sister he is determined to create a better life for.
The family spent the pandemic on a virtual 24/7 lockdown, his mother terrified that one of her kids, or maybe her frail and aging mother, would catch the virus. The family had already suffered so much: Jonathan’s grandmother was in and out of the hospital for months and keeps oxygen nearby for when she feels weak. He had a baby sister who died in her crib a few years ago, at just 3 months old, leaving Jonathan feeling as though he had somehow failed to protect her. Jonathan himself was hit by a car his sophomore year of high school, and then spent much of that spring, as the shutdown began, sick himself, fearing he had covid. (He didn’t.)
For Jonathan, staying inside was stifling, and damaging. A lack of exercise and a poor diet left him with elevated cholesterol, something he’s pretty sure a teenager shouldn’t have. Now he’s back at Burton, powering through one AP course after the next, applying to elite colleges, simultaneously terrified that he will be admitted and move far away, maybe across the country.
On a recent Monday night, Jonathan sat on the edge of a couch at College Track, a college preparatory program that offers tutoring and counseling aimed at low-income, first-generation students who live in the Bayview-Hunter’s Point area of the city, where Burton High School sits. He was trying to fill out his federal financial aid form by himself, and the section where he has to select colleges to receive the form was stressing him out. He thinks he should apply to elite colleges in the East — Yale, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania were in his head. But the idea of leaving his family filled Jonathan with anxiety.
Parents were invited for the session, but his mom couldn’t make it. So, with her 2020 tax form in hand, Jonathan started to make his way through the application.
Glancing down, he saw Line 1, “wages, salaries, tips.” When covid hit, the nail salon where his mom works shut down, and her wages for the year totaled $4,975.
More than anything, Jonathan wanted out of poverty.
“I felt cornered,” he said. “I felt like I had no real option but to succeed.”
His mom, Linda Hong, was scared too. She came to the United States from Vietnam with her family when she was 10 years old, and dreamed of someday becoming a nurse. She had to drop out of college to work, but hopes for more for her three children.
“I’m proud of him,” she said one afternoon, and tears started to fall. She knows she cannot afford to pay for college. “He told me it’s expensive,” she said. “I just feel proud and kind of like emotional because I’m worried that I mess up his dream.”
‘Reaping what we’ve sowed’
It is obvious to teachers at Burton that students have not yet recovered from the trauma of the past year and a half; they are behind academically and less mature than would be typical.
At a meeting of the history department, a stream of teachers complained that more students are coming late to class than ever before. “We need some hallway sweeps,” Nielsen said. The answer came back: not enough staff for it.
The short staffing is related to the pandemic. One engineering teacher, for instance, quit the day before classes began because he didn’t want to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, and the principal can’t find a replacement. The district is also suffering an acute shortage of substitutes, meaning teachers need to recruit their colleagues to cover for them when they are away. That’s what led Nielsen to open a Spanish class this way: “I hope you guys know Spanish, because I do not.”
Schools stayed closed last year partly due to teachers union pressure.
“I would like to say we made the right decision to not come back, but we’re kind of reaping what we’ve sowed,” said Zou, the English teacher. Academic anxiety is at an all-time high, he said, and academic skills are at a low.
Nielsen figures he got through a third of his normal material last year. Now back at school, he notices that students are struggling to finish their assignments and are tearing up over the tiniest of critiques.
David Knight, a French teacher who is active in the union, had no regrets about advocating for remote school but clearly sees the damage done as a result of being home for so long. He finds students can’t stop looking at their phones, and sometimes are even on Discord during class. They simply are unable to focus, Knight said.
“If you’d asked me last year, I would have said, ‘Oh, online teaching was okay. Kids who wanted to learn could learn,’” he said. “But now coming back, I would change that. I think the kids have missed out a lot on social norms. … It’s as if they’re online while they’re sitting in school.”
At 100% College Prep, Am’Brianna was planning for her future, starting with her first application for a scholarship.
Since 2018, the program has been providing her with tutoring, mentoring, a place to go almost every day after school. Now Tachelle Herron-Lane, the woman who runs it, is ready to help launch one of her favorite students.
“She is the one,” she said. “She’s the one who will blow you away.”
Herron-Lane has been watching Am’Brianna since she was in middle school, saw her win a citywide competition promoting healthy food options in school, witnessed her appearance on the floor of the California Assembly. She has seen her struggle, too.
Am’Brianna wants to go to a historically Black college, maybe Dillard in Louisiana or Florida A&M in Tallahassee — someplace far from her family. She is looking ahead to a time when she’ll only need to worry about herself. It will be, in many ways, easier, she thinks. But it’s also scary.
“I’m just very nervous because I’m so used to just taking care of other people,” she said. “Do I even know how to take care of myself now?”
About this story
Story editing by Joe Heim. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Adrienne Dunn. Design by J.C. Reed.