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As Signs Of Life Return To Erie County, Students And The Places They Support Tread Carefully

This is the sign on over the main entrance to Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa., Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019.
Gene J. Puskar
This is the sign on over the main entrance to Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa., Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019.

High school seniors on their way out of Erie County schools stand at a unique crossroads this month.

Like the class that came before them, they’ve had to contend with an unusual school year packed with virtual learning and peppered with social isolation. But unlike that class, their final days of school are happening as pandemic restrictions are lifting.

That reality played out when a group of four college-bound students got together over Zoom last month. While they had plenty to say about how the pandemic is factoring into their post-graduation plans, they were just as interested in talking about how prom season would play out in a less-restrictive world.

“I know that your schools seem a lot more strict, and I know my school is having a prom but I was curious about you guys,” Seneca High School senior Tylee Conaway of Wattsburg said.

Jay Tonks of Harbrocreek, who attends Mercyhurst Preparatory School, said juniors and seniors would have separate prom nights capped at 250 people a night. General McLane High School student Ellie Shade said seniors like her would be the only class able to attend prom there. Riley Hudnall, who’s in her final weeks at McDowell High School, said her school has a similar rule, with seniors attending in one of two sessions.

These are conversations none of them had last year. Hudnall said she’s happy there will be at least one in-person social event happening before she leaves the school for college.

“The most fun and social thing we did all year was, like, going outside for the fire drill,” she said.

Hudnall, Tonks and Conaway said they are attending Mercyhurst University in the fall. Shade said she’s going to Penn State Behrend. Each said they are confident in their decisions and excited to take that next step. But the optimism felt tempered by a lingering sense of uncertainty.

Though Hudnall said she’s living on campus in the fall, she’s worried about whether the pandemic will worsen by then. Maybe the university will have to reinstitute restrictions.

“It’s like, should I even be spending all this money if there’s still a pandemic going on?” Hudnall said.

Tonks said he’s worried about that scenario too. But he’s going to stick it out.

“I figured it’s like a new opportunity to meet new people, and I think I’m ready for it regardless of what the restrictions are. I’m just hoping they get better soon.”

Conaway, who’s planning to study applied forensics and criminology, said she needs as much in-person lab time as she can get in her first year.

“If the pandemic does continue, I’m concerned I won’t get the hands-on experience,” she said.

Like Tonks, Shade said after more than a year of virtual learning, she’s ready to take the next step in her life’s journey, no matter where her foot lands.

“I feel like college will just be like another adventure,” Shade said. “I know it’ll be different if masks and social distancing [are] still around, but getting to see new people and having new professors will be a great opportunity.”

Erie County colleges: ‘I think we’ll see the rebounds this year’

Though most Erie County schools are expecting a full return to in-person learning by the fall, most have held some or all classes virtually and COVID protocols have reigned for those living on campus. That in part led some of the students that could have gone to college to hold off.

Dr. Ken Louie, who directs Penn State Behrend’s Economic Research Institute of Erie, said that trend is more worrying in the long term. He said by the first few months of the year, the county had managed to recover 60 percent of the jobs lost in the early days of the pandemic. That rebound is likely to continue or even accelerate as Pennsylvania’s mitigation measures lift by month’s end.

A stronger economy, he said, means families will feel more confident about sending their kids to college or trade school than they did a year ago.

“We lost something like 22,000 jobs during the height of the pandemic, but like many other areas, we are recovering,” Louie said.

At the same time, research shows a declining U.S. birth rate, meaning fewer students over the next decade. Louie said if enrollment levels can’t keep up, even universities like Penn State could see program or staff cuts. That may happen, he said, at the three State System of Higher Education schools in the region being eyed for consolidation.

“When you look at the range of universities, there are some that have the attributes that allow them to withstand this kind of shock, but others do not and will likely have a hard time [recovering],” Louie said.

But more students are starting to commit to college in Erie County again.

Penn State Behrend saw just over 800 students enroll last fall, down from a typical class of 1,100. But Interim Admissions Director Andrea Konkol says as of early this month, 12 percent more first-year students said they would attend the university this fall.

The school also expects to be fully open by then and continue accepting applications through August, which Konkol said may greatly aid in attracting more students and helping to keep them enrolled through the year.

“I think students are still interested, and I’m really optimistic that we’re going see the rebounds this year,” Konkol said.

Mercyhurst University’s Vice President of Enrollment Joe Howard says his school is already seeing pre-pandemic numbers of high school seniors ready to attend in the fall. As of late April, there were 655, which he said is within the normal range of 650-670.

But Howard says some might think twice before being social with others, or feel anxious about their futures in different ways than those before them.

“I do think that a portion of our students are going to arrive more fragile than they might have been had they had sort of a traditional exit from high school and entrance into college.”

But even for those students who have experienced an unceremonious end to their high school years, plenty are persisting.

Likola Bolondo of Erie, a sophomore biology major at Penn State Behrend, immigrated from South Africa with her family three years ago, and ended up in Erie. Just as the pandemic forced her into a virtual college experience, her mom was forced to quit her job at a hotel so she could be with her four other children, one as young as seven.

Bolondo said her family found it tough to pay the internet bill and other expenses at times.

“Everyone was just doing OK, but at times my mom would break down, but she wouldn’t do it in front of us. I would just observe and know that something was up,” Bolondo said. “It was kind of stressful but we all got through it as a family.”

It was that close-knit support system that kept her in school, she said. Her parents encouraged her to keep at her classes, even when things were hard. She still aims to graduate in a few years, and eventually move to Washington state for graduate school.

“It’s not new anymore. It’s now normal and we’re just hoping for the best,” Bolondo said. “Hopefully next fall everything will open up and I’ll get to see some of my friends.”

Erie County workplaces: ‘You have to be creative to keep those good employees’

For those high schoolers that intend to go straight into the workforce, plenty of work opportunities await them in Erie County. Janet Anderson of the Northwest PA Job Connect employment center explained the unemployment rate is starting to fall across the county and more people are moving out than moving in on average.

That’s created a situation where there aren’t enough people to fill the entry-level jobs that keep many workplaces running.

“Many women [in particular] are challenged right now in getting back to work because of the schooling situation,” Anderson said. “If your child gets quarantined for two weeks, who will be home to care for the child?”

Anderson said that in part has led many workplaces to reimagine the concept of an entry-level job entirely. Some are starting to offer more flexible hours and even permanent work-from-home options.

“They’re starting to recognize or feel what their employees are going through,” she said.

“Because that’s the reality: when unemployment is as low as it is and you have a population deficit, you have to be creative to keep those good employees.”

What young workers in particular need and expect has shifted dramatically in the last year, which means to keep the school-to-work pipeline open, Anderson said flexibility and better benefits may be here to stay.

The pandemic has clearly made a short-term impact on what young people are choosing to do in Erie County, and Anderson expects the county’s higher education schools and workplaces may not see pre-pandemic levels of youth involvement return for at least a few more years.

But soon enough, she said, young people will help things come roaring back to life here.

“They’re always going to want to look for opportunities to get out of the house and go and do what they believe is normal growing up with their peers,” Anderson said.

Sam Dunklau produced this story as part of the America Amplifiedinitiative, using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional, and national journalism. America Amplified is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.