Westbrook students preparing for graduation next month had one full “normal year” out of their four high school years, the result of the pandemic and the fire at the school that delayed a return to in-person classes last fall.

They’re a special class, said Westbrook High School Co-Principal Pat Colgan. They’re resilient.

Grace Backman, Lillian Ranco, Keegan Pohan and Ava Lamontagne are among the seniors who last spent a full year at school as freshmen. In March of their sophomore year when Westbrook and schools all over the state abruptly switched to remote learning because of the pandemic, it first seemed like a welcome nice break from the routine, they said. But anxiety and depression crept in as the weeks turned into months without regular classes and in-person socializing, they said.

And anxious adults around them didn’t help.

“I saw adults disagreeing for the first time on things, like masks. Some parents let kids out to hang out while others didn’t,” Ranco said. “I couldn’t watch the news anymore with all of the death tolls, it was too much.”

On the academic side there has been a clear impact, Colgan said.


“For things to go back to normal for them, it’ll take time,” Colgan said during an interview Monday. “They’ve been hit harder than any of our other classes, left with little time to make things up.”

About 10 of 130 seniors have disconnected entirely from school since the pandemic, Colgan said, and another 10-15 seniors attending school are at risk of not graduating. That’s a failure rate of between 15% to 19%, up from the pre-pandemic 10% failure rate. However, he said,  some of those at-risk students will end up meeting the requirements for graduation with the help of intervention programs in full swing now.

The seniors who spoke with the American Journal this week said while fulfilling graduation requirements during the pandemic may have been more challenging, the pandemic’s real impact on their lives was added stress, heightened anxiety and depression that lingers.


Nationally, major depressive episodes among children ages 12-17 have increased 3% increase since 2018, according to the nonprofit Mental Health America. Over the last year, the increase was about 1.2%, affecting 306,000.

During the early months of the pandemic, from March 2020 to September 2020, over 80% of children aged 11-17 who took an anxiety screening scored for moderate to severe anxiety, according to a Mental Health America report, and in September 2020 alone, that number was 84%.


The Westbrook students talked about the stress involved in navigating a life event that for the first time in their lives their parents did not know how to handle. Additional stress came from worrying for older family members.

“My parents were very scared. They were also scared for their parents,” Lamontagne said.

Ranco said at times she had wondered whether her parents’ caution came from logic or paranoia.

For Backman, who is admittedly not big on school and more of a “social butterfly,” being remote was relaxing until her parents were out of work because of the pandemic and at home.

Picking up a second job at the local Hannaford to take advantage of the hazard pay, Backman provided the only significant cash flow for some time, working full-time hours even when the high school transitioned to a hybrid schedule of remote and in-person instruction. 

“It was hard, I felt like there were times I was the one teaching my parents because I was out in the world doing things while they stayed home,” she said.


The remote work, when coupled with time spent on social media, was exhausting and the constant computer time burned them out.

“It got depressing,” Backman said.

Pohan found herself too burnt out to pursue personal projects at home.

“It was weird but even with more time to myself I wasn’t able to get some things done,” she said.

Boredom was an issue, too, the seniors said.

“There was nothing to do, too, and I would just literally drive for hours,” LaMontagne said.



Lamontagne is college-bound, but as a junior, she worried that she was missing out on a crucial time to join after-school groups and clubs and get her grades up for college applications.

“Midterms before we went remote kind of tanked my grades. I began to worry about not being able to make those up, and going remote it sort of felt like, ‘what is the point?'” she said.

Ranco said asking for help remotely via the online Google Classroom was embarrassing.

“I didn’t want to be the one to ask a question and make everyone go into breakout rooms,” she said.

As the students prepared to head back to school for their senior year, it was announced that damage from a fire at the school in July would delay their in-person return. They returned to remote learning for four months.


“I didn’t really even think it was real,” Lamontagne said.

“I saw the fire trucks at work,” Backman said. ” I thought someone was having a bad day, but when I read the news I just couldn’t help but laugh at the luck.”


The seniors agreed they like being back since their Dec. 1 return, but it still feels weird, and the depression and anxiety is still present.

“Coming back felt weird. I felt like I should be working, with school coming second, because that is how it was,” Backman said.

But their experience hasn’t been all bad, the students said.


Backman said she grew during that time, working and gaining independence. Ranco had a similar experience, for the first time not having someone else tell her “what to do all day.” She also said she learned to “advocate” for herself by going out of her way to get extra school help digitally.

Pohan used the time to start a band, a long-time goal, and kept involved in the school’s music programs, recently winning awards as part of the Jazz Ensemble. Being back, she is continuing to get more involved in Model U.N. activities, presented a project on clean water at the Statehouse and has  returned to some of her previous work on the Civil Rights team.

School spirit is way up, Ranco said.

“This class is resilient, they really have pushed through more than any other classes in the district, and any other class in general given the fire,” Colgan said. “These students had struggles, they had hard times, but they are resilient.  I mean it that this class is special.”

The school’s intervention specialist continues to help the seniors at risk of not graduating through through extra classes or assignments, both at school and as part of the Adult Ed program, he said. School counselors and social workers are also working for the those students.

“We have a huge support system that has not failed our kids,” Colgan said.

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