The Class of 2021

Grade 12 was not what they imagined: no prom, no varsity teams, no senior trip. But these teens survived the quadmester system and made their way through online school. Here’s how they coped—the good and the bad—and what they’re doing next

Alfina Shahu, 17

School: Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute
Neighbourhood: Thorncliffe Park
What’s next: Psychology, neuroscience and behaviour at McMaster

I was really busy before the pandemic. After school, I worked at Kumon two or three times a week teaching reading and math to kindergarten students. I volunteered at the front desk of Michael Garron Hospital once a week, and I also volunteered at my mosque on Saturdays, assisting the teachers and caring for the kids when the teachers went to pray.

The Class of 2021

I had a close group of friend—some of us have been friends since Grade 5. I was excited about going into Grade 12 and finishing off this journey with them. I was planning on applying for an executive position at our school’s Muslim Student Association. All my friends were going to study science after graduating, so I figured I’d do the same and go into a science program at a university in Ontario. Things were pretty busy at home, too. I live with my mom, dad, sister and brother-in-law in a two-bedroom apartment. My sister and brother-in-law are in one bedroom and I share a room with my parents.

When the pandemic started, I was excited at first about getting a three-week March Break. Then once we started virtual learning, the teachers were still adjusting to the new format, so the workload wasn’t too much. But things changed once we went into Grade 12 and started the quadmester system. The workload was crazy, and the teachers went through everything super fast. I had to spend all my days sitting in front of the laptop to study. I barely went out at all. No matter how much I did, it never felt like enough.

I started doing FaceTime and Zoom calls with my friends, which helped a bit. We would talk about university applications and how we were going to do them without the help of our teachers and guidance counsellors. By November, I decided to quit my part-time job at Kumon because I needed to concentrate on schoolwork. I had to keep my grades up to get into university. I started getting really bad anxiety. I already suffer from IBS, but my symptoms were worse than ever. I talked to my doctor and she figured that stress was the cause. She recommended some meditation apps and breathing techniques. Now I listen to meditation podcasts before going to bed, which really help calm me down.

In January, my sister and brother-in-law had a baby girl. I love children, and it was really fun to have her around. Sleeping was hard at first since she cried in the night, but I got used to it. It didn’t affect my schoolwork too much. I mostly studied at a desk in my parents’ bedroom, and my sister and mom would be with the baby in the living room.

In March, one member of our family got Covid. We tried our best to keep distanced, but it’s hard in a small apartment. Within a few days, everyone in the house caught the virus. By then I had been fasting for Ramadan for a few days, so I was already feeling weak. But I stopped fasting once I got sick. I was so exhausted. I’d lie in bed during the day, open up my laptop for a class and end up sleeping through it. I found I had more energy in the evenings, so I would go on a Zoom with my friends, and they’d get me caught up with schoolwork. I recovered from Covid in about six days, as did my family members—we were lucky.

After I recovered, I had a change of heart about studying science. Working alone at home, I thought to myself, Is this really for me? Am I doing it because I like it or because everyone around me likes it? I took an anthropology, sociology and psychology course and became interested in how the brain operates. So I decided to switch from science to social science. I’ll be studying psychology, neuroscience and behaviour at McMaster.

If it weren’t for Covid, I’d probably still be in the core sciences and pursuing something I wasn’t really interested in. So I’m grateful to have made that discovery with all the independent studying I did during the pandemic. But I still really miss the human-to-human interaction. I’m looking forward to learning in person at university in the fall.

—As told to Andrea Yu