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What Tampa Bay kids think about school, the virus and this ‘crazy’ time

“I would do anything to be back in school with my teachers and to get back to normal life."
The Tampa Bay Times asked students to discuss how they're dealing with school and life during the coronavirus pandemic. Four are shown here, from left: Lily Patterson, 15; Byron Owens, 10; Madi Matro, 10; and Logan Hand, 16. Also shown is a piece of artwork by 9-year-old Savvy Nelson.
The Tampa Bay Times asked students to discuss how they're dealing with school and life during the coronavirus pandemic. Four are shown here, from left: Lily Patterson, 15; Byron Owens, 10; Madi Matro, 10; and Logan Hand, 16. Also shown is a piece of artwork by 9-year-old Savvy Nelson. [ Photo Composite ]
Published May 4, 2020|Updated May 4, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has forced students into a new way of life. There is no in-person school. No play dates. No sports or extracurriculars.

Kids are bored, disappointed, even longing to be in class again. But they’re figuring out how to keep themselves busy, connect with friends and stay hopeful.

The Tampa Bay Times interviewed 15 students from schools in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties. They range in age from 9 to 18, and have a lot to share about how the pandemic is affecting their day-to-day:

Lily Patterson, 15, sophomore at Nature Coast High

Lily Patterson staged a photoshoot of herself in her bedroom wearing a strapless dress. She was supposed to wear it for a competition that was canceled.
Lily Patterson staged a photoshoot of herself in her bedroom wearing a strapless dress. She was supposed to wear it for a competition that was canceled. [ Courtesy of Beaumont Sebos ]

Lily turns 16 in July. She’s been practicing for her driver’s license test, but she isn’t sure when she will be able to take it.

She had planned to go to a theme park on her birthday, but now she will likely spend it at home with family. “Hopefully, when everything gets back to normal, we can have a big celebration,” she said.

In the meantime, to keep from going “stir-crazy,” Lily watches movies with her classmates from film class while they chat online. She has weekly Zoom calls with her friends, too.

“This has been really hard on all of us, but technology has helped. I can’t imagine what this would be like if we didn’t have it. ... Social media helps a lot, but it’s not even comparable to being in person, really."

Lily staged a photo shoot in her room recently. She wanted to capture herself in the dress she had planned to wear to a film competition that was canceled because of the pandemic. Strapless, black with pink and gold flowers — it was perfect.

“We just need to keep talking to each other through it,” Lily said. "As much as we complain about school, we’re all missing it. We need to keep in touch so that we can pick up where we left off when we go back.”

Savvy Nelson, 9, third-grader at Gulf Beaches Elementary Magnet

Savvy Nelson at her birthday party.
Savvy Nelson at her birthday party. [ Courtesy of Chelsea Nelson ]

Savvy likes doing school from home, because she finishes her work more quickly. But she misses her friends.

They’re coming up with new ways to play together, like makeup competitions over video chat.

“We did the Halloween challenge and the colorful challenge, where you had to use all the colors of the rainbow. I won the Halloween challenge. I did Frankenstein, like the scars and stitches. For the colorful one, I put on blue and green eyeshadow and red blush.”

Her art teacher recently assigned a “thought bubble” project, telling Savvy and her classmates to draw what’s on in their minds about the pandemic. “This stinks,” Savvy wrote next to drawings of all the things she can’t do because of the virus.

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“There’s no school, no friends, no beaches, and it’s really sad,” she said. “I am always bored and there’s nothing to do. You can’t go around town or outside because the COVID-19 spreads very easily and they can’t test right away so we can’t know if people have it.”

Savvy celebrated her birthday at home April 8. Her parents set up a seahorse piñata filled with lollipops in the front yard. They had a confetti cake that “tasted like sprinkles.” But the best part, Savvy said, was when her grandparents drove by to wave at her.

Olivia Fuerst, 12, seventh-grader at Challenger K8

Olivia Fuerst painted a self-portrait inspired by her feelings about the coronavirus.
Olivia Fuerst painted a self-portrait inspired by her feelings about the coronavirus. [ Courtesy of Cheryl Fuerst ]

Olivia’s art teacher asked her to make something inspired by her feelings about the coronavirus. She just doodled at first, then had an idea.

She painted a self-portrait, showing herself wearing a mask and sad, worried eyes. “I wish I could be with my friends,” it reads.

“It’s definitely weird not being at school. It doesn’t really feel like summer break because we’re not allowed to do the things we want to do. … It’s kind of really funky being apart. Online school is easier, definitely. But I prefer going to actual school because I miss my friends.”

Alexadier Hairston, 14, eighth-grader at Charles S. Rushe Middle

Alexadier Hairston, with his little brother Malachi, says the biggest disappointment is missing out on his last track and football seasons at Charles S. Rushe Middle.
Alexadier Hairston, with his little brother Malachi, says the biggest disappointment is missing out on his last track and football seasons at Charles S. Rushe Middle. [ Courtesy of Shahtia Hariston ]

“I think it’s kind of crazy." That’s what Alexadier has to say about the coronavirus. It’s changed everything for him, suddenly closing the middle school chapter of life.

This spring was supposed to be his last football game as an eighth-grader, his last track season, and the class trip to Universal Studios to celebrate the move to high school. He’s worried he might not get his copy of the yearbook.

“Everyone was getting excited about the end-of-year activities and the field trips, but we can’t go on those now.”

Missing football is the biggest blow. His coach is supposed to send at-home workouts soon, but it won’t be the same as running alongside his teammates.

“I just wish I could play another season.”

Grace Ackermann, 18, senior at Steinbrenner High

Grace Ackermann with her parents, who held a mock prom for her.
Grace Ackermann with her parents, who held a mock prom for her. [ Courtesy of Grace Ackermann ]

Everything planned for seniors has been canceled. But Grace’s parents didn’t let that stop them.

They held a mock prom in their living room, complete with balloons and a disco ball. They posed for photos together at a nearby golf course, Grace’s parents wearing pink to match the dress she found in February at a Palm Harbor boutique.

“The pink made me feel like a princess,” she said. "I was really excited to see everyone dressed up … to see all my friends get all fancy.”

Steinbrenner’s senior send-off, a cookout celebration held during graduation rehearsal, was canceled, too. So was senior “water wars,” a tradition involving water guns.

Even from home, Grace has remained diligent about her schoolwork. She starts at 8:30 a.m. each morning to keep the schedule she had before the pandemic, though “online work can sometimes feel extremely optional,” she said.

Grace is supposed to start at Elon University, a private school in North Carolina, in late August. She plans to major in psychology.

“I can’t imagine having to start my classes on the computer,” she says, "not knowing my professors … my classmates.”

Addison Gad, 11, sixth-grader at Explorer K8

Addison Gad's paintings follow the theme of happiness.
Addison Gad's paintings follow the theme of happiness. [ Courtesy of Kristen Lee ]

To pass the time, Addison has been painting and baking. Chocolate cake, vanilla cake and her specialty, almond bundt cake.

“They’re all from scratch,” she said. “I baked before but not as much because I didn’t have time. But now I have plenty.”

Along with desserts, Addison, an only child, has been supplying her parents with encouraging artwork. Her mom is immunocompromised and her dad still has to report to work.

“Me and my family are stressed out with this whole thing, so I thought I would paint happy things to put around the house. … I’ll sit down and I’ll look at my paints and it just kind of comes to me. I just think about what to write and I write it.”

“Think happy, be happy,” a painting reads. “Live, love, laugh.”

All Addison’s paintings were on her desk in her room. But her mom has started moving them to different parts of the house to serve as small reminders to stay hopeful.

Jilyanna Rivera-Adams, 14, eighth-grader at Bay Point Middle

Jilyanna Rivera-Adams with a drawing showing how she had planned to wear her hair for the 8th-grade dance.
Jilyanna Rivera-Adams with a drawing showing how she had planned to wear her hair for the 8th-grade dance. [ Courtesy of Kassie Adams ]

Jilyanna’s teacher recently asked students in her class how much they miss school on a scale of one to 10. “Ten!” Jilyanna exclaimed.

She struggles in school and not having a teacher nearby makes learning even harder.

“It was like, you get two weeks off. Then it turned into two months,” she said. “We’re, like, trapped and we can’t really do much anymore. Most kids aren’t used to being just stuck. We need to get out and do things with our lives.”

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is having to miss the 8th-grade dance. Jilyanna had picked out a long, silky dress with crystal embellishments and knew exactly how she would style her hair. She had imagined herself twirling around the dance floor with her friends.

Instead, she drew a picture of herself wearing the hairstyle and hung it on the fridge.

Madi Matro, 10, fourth-grader at Our Savior Lutheran

Madi Matro with the painted rocks she places in parks for people to find.
Madi Matro with the painted rocks she places in parks for people to find. [ Courtesy of Nate Cutro ]

Madi was busy before schools closed. But piano lessons, girl scouts, volleyball and plans with friends are all canceled now.

She’s hit a few speed bumps, like technical difficulties with online school and adapting to talking with her teacher on the computer. The teacher recently asked Madi to list the pros and cons of remote learning.

The pros: working at her own pace, sleeping in, doing school work on the couch. “The cons are that we’re missing field trips," Madi said. "We were supposed to go to the planetarium.”

To pass the time while stuck at home, Madi has leaned into a hobby she had before the pandemic: painting rocks and hiding them in the park for others to find. “I paint them with fun colors,” she said. “I make rainbows and flowers, just cool designs with glitter glue.”

Byran Cooper, 18, senior at Middleton High

Byran Cooper teared up when his brother talked about not being able to see him cross the graduation stage.
Byran Cooper teared up when his brother talked about not being able to see him cross the graduation stage. [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times ]

Every teacher has different expectations for distance learning. That’s been the hardest part for Byran.

Some are posting assignments daily, even though students normally follow a block schedule that makes it so not all classes happen every day of the week.

“Sometimes it gets out of hand,” Byran said.

Most of his workload is for Advanced Placement classes. He has a Zoom meeting with those teachers every week as students prepare for upcoming exams.

“I understand that … the scores are still going to impact them.” Byran said. “So of course, they’re still going to be giving us a big workload. That’s just where all of it is stacking up right now."

Byran’s hope is that schools relax the expectations for online learning now that state exams and finals have been canceled. He worries about how much extra work is expected of teachers now.

He’s been trying to help his younger siblings with their schoolwork, too. He checks in on them when he takes breaks from his own assignments.

“My little sister, she was struggling with math the other day, and I like math,” he said.

Byran has been helping his mom, too. She can’t work because of the virus, so he and his sister, who work at Publix together, have been putting in extra hours to pitch in on the family’s expenses.

“I’m putting in 15 to 17 hours in an average week. That’s with still being able to balance school and everything. … Everyone keeps telling me, how are you so sure that no one is coming through with (the virus)? And honestly, you don’t know.”

Byran wasn’t too bothered when he learned graduation would be postponed.

“But the other day, when I got off work, I got a text from my little brother that said how it had just dawned on him that he wouldn’t be able to see his older brother walk across the stage,” Byran said. “That brought me to tears. I didn’t really think about it for the rest of my family and how much it meant to them.”

Byron Owens, 10, fifth-grader at Sheehy Elementary

"My learning isn't as good as when I was in school," Byron Owens says.
"My learning isn't as good as when I was in school," Byron Owens says. [ Courtesy of Tina Terralonge ]

Everything about the coronavirus is stressful, Byron says. He misses everybody and online school is hard.

“My learning isn’t as good as when I was in school,” he said. “I can’t see them in person and get all the help I need.”

One of Byron's paintings.
One of Byron's paintings. [ Courtesy of Tina Terralonge ]

He’s been talking to friends through video games and on the phone to keep in touch. He’s been shooting hoops and painting landscapes to keep himself busy. His latest creation features palm trees.

“I have been wanting to go near water and stuff but I can’t do it anymore because of what’s happening, so I paint it."

Caiden Stuelcken, 11, sixth-grader at Pine View Middle

Caiden Stuelcken says, “I used to not like going to school but now I just really want to go back to school."
Caiden Stuelcken says, “I used to not like going to school but now I just really want to go back to school." [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times ]

Learning from home has not been Caiden’s favorite, for several reasons.

“At school, you can say ‘hi’ to your friends and it’s just normal,” he said. “Now, it’s like you can’t go over to your friend’s house and it’s not very normal.”

He uses video-calling and video games to keep in touch. But it isn’t the same. “I used to not like going to school but now I just really want to go back to school.”

Caiden spends two to three hours a day doing assignments on his iPad. It’s frustrating sometimes, like when he wants to ask his teacher a question but the teacher isn’t available online.

“I’m just ready for it all to be over so everything can go back to normal and so we can do everything that we usually do, like have a nice summer vacation and not just stay inside all day.”

Logan Hand, 16, sophomore at J.W. Mitchell High

Logan Hand has been doing football workouts from home to stay in shape for when his team can practice again.
Logan Hand has been doing football workouts from home to stay in shape for when his team can practice again. [ Courtesy of Tracie Hand ]

As a high-performing student, the switch to remote learning was “quite alarming” for Logan. He worried it couldn’t be done.

Luckily, he found a system that works for him. He keeps a calendar to manage his time and keep track of due dates. “This was especially important since students have so much work in every class and no teacher to remind us,” he said.

Another key has been time away from the computer. “If there is an opportunity to do the assignment on paper, I always take it,” Logan said. “Nobody wants to stare at a white screen for six hours. That would be painful.”

Logan is participating in remote football practice, too. The spring season was canceled, so his coach sent players some at-home workout routines. Each day focuses on a different part of the body — legs, abs, arms, shoulders — and the players send in videos of themselves completing the workouts, he said.

“It has been working well so far,” Logan said. “Hopefully, it will keep the team in shape for when things are back to normal.”

Alexa Michael, 13, seventh-grader at Seven Springs Middle

“I would do anything to be back in school,” Alexa Michael says.
“I would do anything to be back in school,” Alexa Michael says. [ Courtesy of Sharon Michael ]

For Alexa, online school is a way to take her mind off the pandemic and all that it has changed about day-to-day life. Her favorite part is Zoom calls with her class.

“I get to see my teachers and friends ... and it makes life feel normal for an hour,” she said. “Even when the teachers make an announcement or comment on my work, it makes me feel like I am in the classroom with them.”

Normally, Alexa would be ready for summer break by now. But she misses class more than ever. “I would do anything to be back in school with my teachers and to get back to normal life," she said, though she is grateful for teachers who are making the best of the situation.

“They have really supported and encouraged us to fight through this time and to continue to work.”

Laney Miller, 10, fifth-grader at Pasadena Fundamental Elementary

Laney Miller, with a sidewalk chalk project she completed while stuck at home.
Laney Miller, with a sidewalk chalk project she completed while stuck at home. [ Courtesy of Raegan Miller ]

Laney and her friend started a project when schools closed. They’ve recorded more than 100 video clips to put together as a movie about working in an animal shelter — all from their respective homes.

“We’ve done a lot of retakes and stuff,” she said. “It starts with her picking up the phone to call me, and then there’s another clip where I hear the phone ringing and I pick it up.”

Laney is a gifted student and a member of her school’s art and STEM clubs. She used to play volleyball after school, too.

“It’s kind of sad,” she said. “You can still do art and practice volleyball at home, but it’s not as fun not being able to see friends.”

Malachi Hairston, 10, fifth-grader at Oakstead Elementary

Malachi Hairston said learning from home has fewer distractions.
Malachi Hairston said learning from home has fewer distractions. [ Courtesy of Shahtia Hairston ]

Malachi likes learning from home more than at school. There are fewer distractions and that helps him finish his work more quickly.

Malachi has had a little trouble in science, because he can’t ask his teacher for help like he would in the classroom. But he’s learning to get the help he needs over Zoom, which is also one of the ways he’s keeping in touch with friends.

He’s spent the time at home playing video games and watching YouTube. Sometimes, he cooks scrambled eggs. He likes to ride his bike to fulfill requirements for PE class. But all he really wants to do is play football. This year was the first his parents said he could play tackle instead of flag.

“I was kind of sad because I love playing football,” Malachi said. “But if we’re outside all the time, we might get the virus and then we’ll get sick. So we’re on lockdown.”

• • •

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