This story is part of a series on the experiences of students attending three different California school districts during the COVID-19 pandemic, in spring 2022. It was produced through a partnership with CatchLight Local and CalMatters

Anthony Pritchett, a senior at Nevada Union High School, sits on the Nevada Joint Union High School District’s board of education as the student member. He’s tried to enjoy his last year of high school while also trying to navigate the politics surrounding schools and the pandemic.

In February, the district’s school board voted to make masking optional on campuses, violating an agreement with its teachers’ union. Schools in the 2,700-student district closed in the days following the vote because teachers refused to come to work.

As a student board member, Pritchett’s vote doesn’t count. But he said he voted against changing masking rules because it would set a “dangerous precedent” for teachers and their working conditions.

“It was a very scary, high-tension atmosphere at that board meeting,” he said. “I didn’t want to say much at all, which I still very much regret.”

Superintendent Brett McFadden said he was also disappointed by the board’s decision, because the district had to spend over $30,000 on legal fees to reach a settlement with the teachers’ union.

Nevada Union High School

Grass Valley, Nevada County
1,477 students, per 2021-22 enrollment
Two largest groups by ethnicity
72.3% White
17.4% Hispanic or Latino
39.1% percentage of students receiving free & reduced price meals
4,690 recorded COVID-19 cases in the school’s ZIP code (population: 26,281)

“Individuals from the community or outside the community would parachute in and throw their hand grenades on whatever issue they were passionate about, and then they’d leave,” McFadden said. “Well, the next morning, it’s the teachers and myself who are here and we have to repair that damage.”

McFadden, who’s leaving the district in July for a new job, said the relationships within the community will take a long time to recover. If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, he said, he likely would have stayed at the district. He said most of his employees are completely burned out. 

“People were saying two or three months ago that we just want this year over,” McFadden said. “There was a sentiment of let’s get this year over with and come back next school year, hopefully refreshed.”

For Pritchett, this school year was full of compromises. School dances were held outside. Rallies were canceled. Friend groups dwindled.

But Pritchett said he tried to attend all his school events.

“We haven’t had any of these dances in like two years,” he said. “So I’m definitely trying to make the most of it.”

Students arrive in the morning at Nevada Union High School in Grass Valley. In Nevada City, classes moved to a hybrid model — with students alternating between remote and in-person lessons — in the spring of 2021.
Coming back to in-person classes was exciting to Pritchett (center), who sees himself as a naturally social person.

But the return to classes was also stressful. “We hadn’t seen anyone in like a year. We’d only seen them on FaceTime or Zoom calls,” he said. “We haven’t interacted in person, you know, and people changed so much. They grew beards out, they got taller, they changed completely. So learning how to talk to people, how to talk to friends you haven’t talked to face-to-face in a while, was almost an overwhelming experience.”
Pandemic-related safety protocols and precautions met students upon their return to in-person classes and added to the stress of the experience, Pritchett said.

“It was stressful, because, you know, most upperclassmen they’ve been in school (in person) the entire time,” Pritchett said. “We were just kind of picked up from our younger years and just plopped back into school as upperclassmen. I think a lot of people in my class, they didn’t really feel like upperclassmen because they didn’t really get that chance to mature in their junior and senior years.”
This played out in many different ways, Pritchett said, but none so vividly as what happened to the school’s bathrooms.

“Things just started to get taken or stolen. You’d notice that mirrors started to get stolen. Sinks. Entire sinks started to get stolen. Bathroom doors were getting ripped off,” Pritchet said. “Things got so bad that the majority of bathrooms (were) actually closed on campus and the school actually brought in porta potties on campus and bolted them into the ground.”
One new factor students had to navigate upon returning to in-person learning was wearing masks, which Pritchett said quickly became about more than their function in preventing the spread of COVID. “Black masks are really popular,” Pritchett said. “I’m usually late to school by a couple minutes because my sister takes forever to get ready,” he said. “She can never find a black mask. And so she’ll always be rummaging around the cabinets and the house trying to find a black mask.”
Another new aspect of returning to in-person classes was the absences. Statewide, both attendance and enrollment plummeted since the start of the pandemic.

During the 2021-22 school year, districts that typically had less than 5% of their students absent on a given day were seeing up to a quarter of students absent during the delta and omicron surges. Teacher absences also brought schools to a breaking point.

“There’s so many kids out of the classroom, with COVID. Same thing with teachers, too,” Pritchett said. “You’ll get like someone who’s been gone for a long time and you don’t really ask where they are. You know they got COVID.”
While attending school remotely, Pritchett said that students’ preexisting social lives were upended.

“My neighbor, we grew super close during the pandemic just because we weren’t going anywhere. We would just go on little walks every night and just play basketball on his basketball court,” he said. “We weren’t that close before the pandemic, but proximity brought us together.”
Now back in school, Pritchett said the consequences of that time are still playing out.
“Coming back from the pandemic, school’s just very, like click-y. Friend groups really dwindled and became a lot tighter and smaller,” he said. “I remember like my freshman and (the) beginning of sophomore year, at lunch, we would all congregate and the entire class, basically, the entire grade would be eating lunch together,” he said. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”
Anthony Pritchett and a group of his friends hang out during lunch.
Many of the activities and spaces that brought teens in the community together outside of school were shut down due to the pandemic and have yet to resume, Pritchett said. As a result, school took on greater importance as a place where young people can socialize with each other face to face.

At the same time, Pritchett’s father works in a nursing home in close proximity to seniors who are at a heightened risk of severe illness if they contract COVID. For Pritchett, this means he’s felt the need to stay extra vigilant to avoid infection even as he has sought to reestablish the connections with his peers that dwindled while learning remotely.

“It’s one of those things you definitely do think about, though, especially when you’re with a bunch of kids in school, or (at) parties or events,” he said. “You’re always wondering, ‘Am I going to catch COVID here?’ It is one of those things that’s always on your mind.”
Although masks were mandatory in school for much of the 2022 spring semester, Pritchett said that many of his peers became unhappy having to wear them and some took to openly disobeying the rules. There are “classes where the majority of kids don’t wear masks,” he said, “and the teacher, and students will ask (them to) and things will just escalate from there.”
Like many places in the state, some parents in Nevada City and Grass Valley objected to mask mandates in their public schools. Under pressure from those parents, in February the district’s school board voted to make masks optional on campus, a move that violated a prior agreement with the teachers’ union.
As the student representative on the school board, Pritchett watched as school board meetings became a flash point in the community.
“They should be boring. But they’ve definitely become like a battle ground for a lot of the cultural wars we’ve seen,” he said.
Shortly after the February school board vote to end the mask mandate, teachers walked out of classes for two consecutive days. At the time a trusted teacher told Pritchett that “the majority of her colleagues were looking for other jobs,” he said. “That’s super sad to hear that teachers are feeling that way.”
As the student representative on the board, Pritchett has a ceremonial vote, meaning that his vote is recorded but it is symbolic and not counted in final tallies. “I voted ‘no,’” he said about the decision to end the mask mandate “because teachers in a lot of (schools) are scared of COVID. They are scared of giving it to their families, to their parents, to their own students.”

“And if I’d had a vote, the resolution could have failed.”
Devin Bradley, head of the English department at Nevada Union High School, attends the district board meeting on  March 9, 2022.
Stepping back, Pritchett wonders if there isn’t more going on in the debate over the mask mandate in Nevada City than the specific matter at hand. “I don’t think the issue revolving around masks is the actual mask themselves. I think the issue is someone telling someone else to do something, like forcing someone to do something,” Pritchett said.

And while he disagrees with how the school district ended its mask mandate, he says that the process showed him “just how diverse of a community we do have, and really, how tough it is really, to actually build unity.”

“It’s a very precious thing to have,” Pritchett said. “But it’s hard to get there. It’s very hard to get there.”
Students attend the Nevada Joint Union High School District Board Meeting at Nevada Union High School on March 9, 2022.
By graduation day on June 11, there are no masks in sight at Nevada Union High School as Pritchett and his fellow students prepare for the ceremony inside the school gym.

Over the past few months Pritchett said he watched masks steadily fall out of use at school. “As certain reports came out, certain mandates were lifted, certain people started wearing masks less and less until really, the majority of people stopped wearing masks. And that’s where we are today.”

But rather than dwelling on it, Pritchett is looking ahead. He’s been accepted to UC Berkeley, where he’s enrolled in the College of Natural Resources and he plans to continue his engagement in advocacy work and politics.

“I’ve seen the necessity of people that need their voices heard and maybe can’t always get their voices out there,” he said. “One of the most effective things the pandemic did was shift everyone’s focus. And in a lot of ways, my focus was shifted from that purely academic viewpoint to realizing that there are more important things to tackle in the world.”
Hand shakes, hugs, fist bumps, and high fives. Aside from his friends that couldn’t make it because they were sick with COVID, Pritchett said the graduation seemed nearly normal.

“It’s been a very surreal high school experience ever since sophomore year, ever since COVID hit,” he said. But “just the fact that, you know, as a class we were able to overcome, that’s an accomplishment.”

Student Reflections: Looking Back on School during COVID was reported and written by photojournalists Larry Valenzuela, Salgu Wissmath and David Rodriguez for CatchLight & CalMatters.  

This project was produced by CalMatters & CatchLight as part of the CatchLight Local CA Visual Desk. Contributors include Joe Hong, Miguel Gutierrez Jr., Martin do Nascimento, Mabel Jimenez and Jenny Jacklin-Stratton. The San Antonio Elementary School project was produced through additional collaboration with the Salinas Californian.

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Salgu Wissmath is a nonbinary photographer based in Sacramento, CA. Salgu spent several years teaching elementary school in Mississippi, California, and South Korea and received an MA in Photography from...