Clockwise from top left: Lesya Bazylewicz, Cherryl Baker, David Rion, Tinika Campbell, Camilo Macias, Jennifer Segal
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April 1, 2021 6:25 AM EDT

Having wreaked havoc on their final year of high school, the pandemic proceeded to disrupt the Class of 2021’s post-graduation plans. Some students answered the uncertainty by applying to more colleges than they’d previously planned, perhaps aiming higher. Others saw their best chance at higher education slip away, undone by financial catastrophe the virus brought with it. School counselors, tasked with guiding students through applications and keeping them on track to graduate, also bore witness.

‘I Don’t Want Them to Feel Alone’

“I worry about their mental health. I worry about their stress level. I worry about them having a senior year. My heart just really goes out to them because they are working so hard … I want to make sure that they know that there’s always help. I worry that they’re on the other side of that screen, feeling alone. And I don’t want them to feel alone.”—Cherryl Baker, Mission Hills High School, San Marcos, Calif.

“I think we saw, and probably everyone else saw, students submit more applications … We saw more people adding more über­selective schools to their regular-decision list, almost buying lottery tickets.”—David Rion, The Loomis Chaffee School, Windsor, Conn.

“The vast majority of our students are still planning on four-year college right after high school … We strongly encourage virtual visits, virtual college fairs. We had virtual after-school college meetings, but it’s not the same as physically getting to take that tour and feel the campus environment. That’s always been a really powerful deciding factor for a lot of kids.”—Jennifer Segal, Boston Latin School, Boston

‘I can definitely see a decline in the students’ motivation. I can see myself this year really being more of a motivator than I’ve ever been … It’s been having to motivate them to go to class, turning in an assignment, logging in. Even athletics, having to show up to practice, having to submit an application. It’s everything.”—Camilo Macias, Desert View High School, Tucson, Ariz.

“We’ve been virtual now since March 13 of last year. I have students who never received less than a B who have failing grades in multiple classes. Kids are struggling with a lot. In particular, Atherton is in Louisville, Ky., where Breonna Taylor grew up, went to school and was killed. I have a lot of students who have been struggling with just the social unrest and tension in the city. They are not having an opportunity to process and heal before something else happens. Picture a teenager who is grieving, dealing with the pandemic, cut off socially from their friends and school, which is like a happy place, an escape.

They don’t get to go to school, and then they are having to motivate themselves at 8 o’clock in the morning to get in front of the computer, sign in to class and be ready to learn. And do that every day, day in and day out, in their bedroom. I don’t think people really get the emotional impact. You have kids who are losing family members, grieving, dealing with social unrest and dealing with not having stepped foot in the building one single time their entire senior year. We’re going after the kids and trying to make sure they graduate and get the grades they need. But in addition to that, we have to make sure they’re O.K.”—Tinika Campbell, Atherton High School, Louisville, Ky.

The Longest Year

“It’s pretty common to just interact with students on Zoom, and the camera is turned off, and it’s harder to just get the very basic human-to-human contact points through which we operate—facial expressions, slight movements of our shoulders and hands. That impacts the ability to develop a relationship in the first place. And I think that’s the starting point for reaching students. If I am to convince a student that they’re ready to go to college, and not only college but to a place across the country that’ll give them good financial aid, I need to establish some credibility. And there needs to be a natural back-and-forth relationship there. The families from a higher-income background typically had the kind of mental space and time and financial stability to be able to set up pods, and so they’re still able to kind of socialize, and college was just never a question for them.

For a lot of lower-income and even middle-income families, they’ve had to reconsider, “Is it worth it for me to take classes next year when I don’t even know if they’ll be in person?” These are students and families who are thinking pretty much entirely in financial terms. “Is this really going to be worth it? Should I put it off?” And I totally sympathize. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve said out loud, “I’m really glad to not be in school in this kind of situation.” Because it is a wildly different learning experience, just having to do it through Zoom. I think that this last year has been, like, the longest in anyone’s life. I think it has reminded all of us that there’s a big asterisk on the future. And it’s hard to imagine, What will it actually be like in the fall? Will I get to step on a college campus, or am I doing college from home? I think that kind of uncertainty will be a hurdle to completing those tedious last steps before enrolling.”—Lesya Bazylewicz, Woodrow Wilson High School, Dallas

This appears in the April 12, 2021 issue of TIME.

Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com.

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