Zoom fatigue, isolation complicate college admission season for Sonoma County high school seniors

Hannah Dyer has spent a lot of time in her senior year thinking about the SAT. But not for the reasons you might think.

The difficulty of even scheduling the college entrance exam in the middle of a pandemic has caused much more stress than the test itself, said the Windsor High School senior, who dreams of attending the Air Force Academy.

“They’ve scheduled about five, and four out of five have been canceled,” Dyer said. “I really had my heart set on the Air Force Academy, and I wanted to take the test and make sure I had the best chance (of getting in). But I just couldn’t get a test.”

Eventually, Dyer learned that the academy’s admissions office would grant her flexibility in submitting her scores, recognizing that applicants all over were struggling to find opportunities to take standardized tests.

Like Dyer, other high school seniors across Sonoma County are navigating the challenges of college application season, a task that has only been complicated by the pandemic.

Many are questioning whether they should go directly to college after high school, wondering if universities will resume in-person instruction next fall or keep students in online classes. For those determined to make the leap, they face new burdens beyond the mountain of essays, applications and financial aid forms that have long kept college-bound seniors up at night every fall. There are the struggles of communicating with their counselors remotely, the fatigue of staring at a computer screen after months of remote learning, and the apathy that accompanies the uncertainty surrounding how the pandemic might impact their college experience.

“What happens if we go to college and it’s over Zoom?” said Anaka Estrella, a senior at Casa Grande High School. “A lot of people’s plans have changed and been impacted by what’s happening.”

Estrella, who hopes to attend UC Santa Barbara, said her heart is set on getting out of Sonoma County even if the University of California system holds another remote fall semester. Experiencing some of the newness of college life would be worth it to her, she said.

“Right now, I feel like I’m kind of in a bubble,” she said. Throughout the pandemic, “I honestly haven’t left town that much, maybe to Rohnert Park. Right now the idea of going to college six hours away, that seems like what I need.”

Not all of her peers are following a similar path, however. Estrella said a couple of her friends shifted away from pursuing a four-year school next year and plan on staying closer to home, attending Santa Rosa Junior College.

Whether from a dorm room or her own bedroom at home, the idea of another stint with distance learning doesn’t appeal to Estrella. Applying for colleges has stacked additional screen time on top of what she and her peers are already experiencing during a so-far remote school year.

Her eyes get tired, she said. She gets frequent headaches.

“There’s not much you can do about it, honestly, because you have to sit through class,” Estrella said. “You can’t shut your eyes, or you’re going to get in trouble with your teachers.”

Technical difficulties pushed the University of California to extend its application deadline to Dec. 4, after students struggled to use the online submission portal. California State University also extended its deadline, and will stop accepting applications after Dec. 15.

When it comes to offering help and encouragement to students tackling college preparatory tasks, counselors are typically on the front lines. Nicole Cancilla, a college and career counselor at Piner High School, said that the switch to remote work has presented both challenges and opportunities for the students.

She just had to adjust her expectations about some things. When she and college representatives schedule a virtual drop-in time, for example, for students to connect and ask questions about the rep’s school, attendance is going to be a lot lower. There’s only so much Cancilla can do.

“You focus on the kids who are showing up,” she said. “And you know the reason why a lot of them aren’t is because they’re sick of being on Zoom all day.”

Cancilla, who is in her fourth year as a college and career counselor, said that she’s been unable to establish contact during the remote fall semester with a handful of students who she knows were previously on a college track. The ability to summon a student from class with a note for a quick conversation, lunch periods when kids drop in to ask one or two questions — those are the hardest things to replicate with screens and new schedules in the equation.

“I guess I just wonder if they’re OK, what it is that they need help with,” Cancilla said. “You worry that there’s something more going on. It’s just harder to communicate, harder to reach out, harder to connect.”

Not all of the changes are downsides, however. The instructional videos that Cancilla has made and asked teachers to help distribute to students will continue to be a useful tool even after campuses open back up.

And in the case of standardized tests, Cancilla isn’t unhappy that both the UC and CSU systems have opted out of requiring them for admissions this year, and possibly in future years. She believes in other ways for students to demonstrate their academic potential to admissions officials.

Cameron Harding, also a senior at Casa Grande, had finished submitting applications to his six schools of choice by the second week of December. He had prepared for the SAT and didn’t like that he didn’t get to submit any scores to accompany his applications.

Amid the challenges of asking for letters of recommendation and finding motivation, Harding said the flexibility of his school schedule may have given him more time to finish the applications than with a traditional schedule. And though it’s not as easy to find volunteer opportunities, and school sports seasons were canceled, he got a gig tutoring a few younger students a couple of days a week.

“It’s a job that wouldn’t exist without COVID,” he said.

Dyer, after seeing many of her extracurricular opportunities mostly dry up over the summer, was grateful to be able to help out with shifts at the Redwood Empire Food Bank. Because she’s facing the additional requirements involved with applying to a military school, including seeking a nomination from a federal representative, the process will continue over the next several months.

She’s juggling that on top of an unusually heavy course load, which she scheduled intentionally, to help ready her for the potential rigors of life at the Air Force Academy. But it fits in with what she wants, she said.

“I love a good challenge — they help you grow,” Dyer said. “The schoolwork has been a lot, but I think it’s preparing me.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or On Twitter @ka_tornay.

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