Three years later: Are we okay?


Wren Bulawin

The transition between pre- and post-pandemic life has proven difficult for everyone, especially teenagers. As the world shifts back to “normal,” is it really fair to suddenly expect the younger generation to return to their previous selves unscathed?

Wren Bulawin, Open Canvas Manager, Assistant Features Editor

Exactly three years ago, the world turned upside down. 

Suddenly, humanity was faced with a global trauma unlike any other. Suddenly, we found ourselves trapped in our own little dollhouses. Bulldogs and students worldwide found a short reprieve from their hectic school lives—only to realize, one month in, that at-home learning wasn’t the paradise they once thought it was. 

Yet, slowly but surely, we adapted. It’s in our nature as humans, after all; we shift to our environments, learn to survive, and grin and bear our circumstances in hope for better days. For a while, the answer to “are we okay?” was that we weren’t okay—and at the time, that alone was enough. But now that the world has essentially gone back to “normal,” the age-old question returns, three years later: are we okay

Society thinks we’re okay—even most Bulldogs think that we’re essentially over the pandemic at this point. And the pandemic, with all its death and devastation, posed new, healthier mindsets for today’s generation to grow into—mindsets that question society’s toxic work culture, bolster the importance of our bodies and minds, and encourage us to be kinder to ourselves. So theoretically, we should be okay by now, if not better—but we’re not. At least, not entirely. 

After all, pandemic life mentally debilitated us in one way or another, whether we’re aware of it or not. No one factor is to blame for “pandemic brain”—the sudden spike in ambient stress, combined with isolation, increased screen time, and the rapid, opportunistic evolution of short-form social media created a comorbid concoction of brain fog, attention deficits, and an overall lack of focus. Constant information overload during the last three years has caused a severe buildup of ambient stress, keeping us in a state of chronic, attention-stealing hypervigilance. 15% of American youth have suffered one or more depressive episodes in the last year, and 10% suffer from major depression. And the effects of the pandemic aren’t just mental—studies found that simple exposure to chronic pandemic stress led to inflamed brain tissue, and post-pandemic teenagers now have thinner frontal cortices and reduced volume in the regions that regulate emotion. 

The pandemic changed our brains in every possible way, so we can’t expect ourselves to suddenly shift back to our pre-pandemic selves on a dime. Unfortunately, some people—mainly older generations—look at our young, resilient generation, and wonder why we’re not bouncing back. Six months into 2020, a survey showed that 24% of Generation Z-ers were not coping well with the pandemic compared to our parents’ generation; two years later, chronic absenteeism jumped from 14.3% to 30% in the last school year—11% of which were due to school-induced anxiety or falling behind on work. But the pandemic’s over, they say. Everything’s back to normal, so why shouldn’t we be, too?        

“Masks are coming off, sure. But the mental effects, they’re still lingering,” said senior John Luu. “People who don’t have great mental health nowadays from the pandemic, in some ways, are being pushed even harder, because you just got out, right? So now’s your opportunity.”

We, as a generation, are actively recovering from the severe trauma spurred by three years of isolation, discrepancy, and constant fear. And while we’ve collectively acknowledged the importance of mental health in the last three years, it’s simply in Bulldog nature to compare our past selves and push ourselves harder. But shaking off all that trauma and being forced to meet pre-pandemic standards is an overambitious goal that we aren’t quite ready for yet, regardless if we’ve “recovered” or thrived during the pandemic.

“[For me], I would rank the pandemic years, freshman year, and then senior year greatest to lowest in productivity.” said Luu. “[In freshman year], we were pushed unnecessarily hard. But [if that pressure existed today,] I probably wouldn’t [be able to keep up].”

So, no, three years later, we’re still not okay. But we can still recover and return to our full potential—we just need more time to recharge and ease back into what the older generations expect of us, rather than rushing the process. 

Luckily, we as a campus community have acknowledged that our generation’s recovery is going to be a slow yet gradual process. As such, Ayala’s culture—teachers and students alike—have loosened their expectations and placed a higher emphasis on students’ socio-emotional health compared to pre-pandemic times, in turn releasing some of the academic and social pressures Bulldogs face. 

“We were comfortable at home, and [after returning to] the environment where we’re back to doing work, we haven’t quite met the expectations of pre-pandemic,” said AP Chemistry teacher Mrs. Lisa Garcia. “We’re still super competitive, but I think the drive has gone down.”

“There’s more focus on the students’ and teachers’ mental health. We’ve already started working on that with the Zen Den,” added senior Braeden Todd. “Mental health days are an improvement that helps out a lot.” 

In addition, Ayala’s teachers are making an effort to slowly push our expectations forward, while still balancing leniency. Last year was proof of that; teachers learned to be more lenient with their pupils, and even AP teachers dialed back to review core concepts that were lost to the pandemic years. This year, the plan is to raise the bar just a little higher, while ensuring that students are comfortable, not overwhelmed, and growing at their own pace. 

“Over this year, the level of expectation has just slightly gone up. In the beginning, we gave a little more leeway, then we just tightened up by the end of the year,” said Ms. Garcia. “We just keep expectations high, and don’t bring them down. If we try to challenge ourselves more, maybe [the post-pandemic effects] will diminish.” 

The little pushes help—slowly but surely, students are building up their focus and productivity back to what it once was, one small step at a time. 

“After the pandemic, things have gotten a lot better,” said Luu. “This year is my redemption year, especially in first semester, where I almost got all A’s. I found my love [for anatomy]. And things are constantly getting improved upon.”

Just as we adapted to the lockdown era, we can adapt to our new normal, too. And while the pandemic itself is far from over, we’re slowly but surely making our way back to how we once were. 

So be kind to yourself, and remember that healing is a process. Be patient with yourself, and don’t let the pressure and comparisons of the past get to you. We are not okay—but as long as we keep pushing forward, that, too, is okay.