Once again, California high school seniors are facing a year of uncertainty. They don’t know if they will be able to go to their prom or attend their graduation. Those planning to go away to college next fall now wonder if they will be able to live on campus or whether they will be staying home and doing more distance learning.

Camila Cruzado, 17, and her tight-knit group of friends had high hopes for their senior year before the pandemic forced the closure of Pinole Valley High in the San Francisco East Bay and other California schools. Since they were small children they had imagined it would be like “High School Musical,” Cruzado said.

Pinole Valley High and other West Contra Costa Unified schools began the school year on Aug. 17 with almost all of its students learning from home.

“I was hoping I could have fun with my friends and take a lot of pictures and have a lot of memories,” Cruzado said. “Now I’m stuck at home. We’re not even going to have a graduation ceremony, and we worked so hard.”

The experience has brought the group closer, she said. They FaceTime one another almost every day, and confide in each other when they are struggling. Cruzado has struggled due to personal issues and anxiety over keeping up with her assignments, she said. But, she feels emotionally supported by her friends.

“I was going through my own battles, and trying not to feel worthless, because of problems that have been going on, and heartbreak, and all of that combined with schoolwork stress,” Cruzado said. “ But (my friends) will FaceTime or call at random times, and they try not to judge.”

Despite concerns about college and the social restrictions imposed because of the coronavirus, Alexandra Mitchel, 18, is trying to enjoy her senior year at Shasta High, which is open and holding classes with a mask requirement, social distancing and other safety precautions.

Students attend school in small groups two days a week and work from home three days a week. But, athletics, band and social activities have been put on hold.

“As the senior typical events and opportunities pass by, I am learning more about how much I was looking forward to some of the silly, celebratory things,” Mitchell said. “I would love to be that person who says ‘I don’t care about high school. I just want to graduate and get out.’ … I actually want the full senior experience, but I know that I won’t receive it.”

Playing in the school band is the thing Mitchell misses the most. In the last few months she has been taught music history in band class instead of playing her flute. She had been looking forward to organizing performances and parties as the band president.

She will get the chance to perform again soon, although she will be doing it at home alone. The school’s music program will put on its annual Madrigal Dinner performance, with the choir and band performing virtually. The musicians and singers will record their parts individually, and they will be edited together. Dinner, previously served at the show, will be offered for pickup, so families can eat their meals and watch the performance at home.

Mitchell is an honor student, but has found it difficult to retain information learned online. She is concerned that taking college courses online may impact her grades, especially as she acclimates to university-level work.

She doesn’t believe that moving between in-person and online instruction has hurt her high school grades, although she won’t be certain until report cards come out in December.

“The pandemic has presented its fair share of issues, but I have managed to overcome them and prevent them from having a negative impact on my grades,” she said.

Cruzado is concerned that her senior year grades may haunt her after high school. Last year, she got mostly A’s, she said, but this year she is on track to only get one A and two C’s. She’s also worried that she might fail her government class, because she hasn’t completed all the assignments.

She’s fallen behind for a number of reasons, she said. It’s partly due to the time she spends helping her mother with her younger brother Leo — a freshman who has a learning disability. Her mother doesn’t speak English, so Cruzado translates for her and Leo’s teachers, which has been a major challenge.

“To be honest if everything wasn’t at home, school would be so much easier, I can’t think of a way that (my teachers) can help me out,” she said.

Planning for college comes with even more uncertainty for the seniors, who can’t predict what COVID-19 infection rates will be like next year.

Mitchell was planning to go away to college when she graduates from Shasta High School in Redding in June, but with many campuses closed because of the coronavirus she isn’t sure whether she should plan to leave home at all.

“Typically, I would anticipate living in a dormitory on campus, but with the pandemic going on I am not certain of what I should expect,” Mitchell said.

Alternately, she worries that choosing to stay home next year and moving onto campus her sophomore year will make it harder to adjust to being a college student.

Mitchell is applying to UCLA, UC Davis and to the University of Nevada, Reno. Currently, UCLA is closed for most in-person instruction. UC Davis has limited in-person instruction and the University of Nevada, Reno will move back to remote instruction after the Thanksgiving break on Nov. 30 because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

Cruzado, who wants to be a social worker, has just started meeting with counselors to help her understand the college application process. She also is getting help from counselors at the RYSE Center, a youth center, in Richmond, where she has a paid online internship. Her latest project for the internship was facilitating a virtual talent show local students.

She plans on attending her local community college, Contra Costa College, and hopefully transfer to UC Berkeley.

Jessica Ramos, 17, a senior at Skyline High in Oakland Unified, started the school year online with a donated Chromebook and hotspot.

A 4.0 student, she has since applied to Montana State University. And she’s busy completing applications to University of California campuses, while also working on an early decision application for her dream school — Stanford University.

But getting help completing her application essays has been harder during distance learning than it would be if she were able to pop in on teachers and advisers on campus.

“Knowing myself,” she said, “I would be at the college advising center 24-7, because that’s usually what seniors do until their applications are submitted.”

Instead, Ramos must schedule online appointments with college advisors or teachers, then wait up to three days to get her questions answered.

Ramos struggled to come up with ideas for her essays. Eventually she decided to focus on the things she is doing to help her community. She wrote about being the student representative to the Oakland Unified school board, working on a committee to help provide laptops and internet access to low-income students. She worked for the successful passage of Measure QQ on Nov. 3, which gives 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in Oakland Unified school board elections. She also worked the phone to urge people to vote for Proposition 15, a measure that appeared headed for defeat. It would have raised billions for California schools.

“What I discovered and know about myself is that I want to make changes in my community,” Ramos said. “That’s why I’m pursuing higher education — to make changes in the education system or the housing and public safety system.”

* This is part of a continuing series on how California families are confronting the learning challenges created by the COVID-19 crisis.

Story originally published by EdSource.