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Take a gap year? Virtual 'U'? Live on campus? The decisions high school grads are making.

Eleanor Brosnan, 18, finished her senior year at Gabriel Richard High School in the spring and  was to start college this month. After the COVID-19 pandemic closed her high school and forced students to learn remotely, she decided that college is not the right option for her — at least not right now. 

The pandemic is forcing Brosnan and tens of thousands of her fellow members of the Class of 2020 to make decisions about their futures — ones they never expected to have to make.

Do they go to college, take a gap year, go straight to work, enroll in the U.S. armed services — or something different? And how will the decisions students make now affect their path in the future?

The Free Press talked to several graduating seniors to learn what they weighed as they decide what’s next.

Early start in dream job

Brosnan, a Livonia native, struggled with online learning as her school moved to virtual classes in the spring. She says she works better in person when she can see and interact with the material.  After struggling to adapt to online learning, she decided that she would rather take a gap year to avoid remote learning in college.  

“I found online learning to be really hard, and so, I didn’t want to do that again in college,” she said. 

Brosnan says she has deferred both her Wayne State University and Michigan State University admissions until the fall of 2021. 

Instead of heading to collage, Brosnan plans to pursue a job in her chosen field. She has her heart set on working in a position where she can help people who have intellectual disabilities, and she wants to spend the next year working in that field.

After the gap year, Brosnan plans to enroll at WSU or MSU to major in gerontology, the study of old age. Her dream job is to run her own senior care facility.

By taking a gap year, Brosnan won’t have to learn remotely, but she will still gain experience to put her on track to reaching her goal.

“I wouldn’t get another opportunity like this in my whole life — to take a whole year off to go somewhere and do something I enjoy,” Brosnan said.   

More: Coronavirus delivers chaos for students applying for college: 'Everything is unknown"

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On campus, 'a good anxious'

Francesca McBride, 18, is a committed athlete for the Mississippi State University’s volleyball team. She had planned to volunteer at an animal shelter and coach a volleyball team for children this summer but wasn’t able to do either because of the pandemic. By mid-July, the Troy High School graduate had already moved to her college’s campus and is taking online classes between training with the Mississippi State volleyball team four days a week. 

“I decided to go to campus early because I wanted to get a head start on my college experience and get acquainted with training at a high level,” McBride said.

She said she follows as much protocol as she can when she is not in her dorm room. She wears a mask every day and distances herself from people not in her dorm. She has her own room for the summer, but she expects to have a roommate in the fall.  

McBride says she is trying to remain positive despite the pandemic. 

“I’m anxious, but it’s a good anxious,” said McBride, who is majoring in educational psychology, the study of how people learn. “I really just want to play my sport, and that outweighs the fear.” 

McBride’s mother, Sheila McBride, says she feels comfortable about the situation mainly because the coaching staff at Mississippi State University has been in close communication with the athletes. There were also “safety measures in place for their student-athletes to follow. Upon arrival, Fran immediately had to be quarantined and tested, which also helped to put me at ease,” she said.

Online start to college

As universities across the nation continue to roll out their restart plans for the fall, some students who were once excited about the idea of living on campus are no longer comfortable with the idea.

Ashton Pongratz, 17, graduated from the University Liggett School in Grosse Pointe and has enrolled in online classes at Ohio’s College of Wooster for the fall. It’s a small liberal arts school that is about a three-hour drive from metro Detroit.

Unlike some of his peers, Pongratz has decided he won't take classes on campus in the fall.  

“The virus has drastically changed my plans for college, and I am most likely going to be doing school from home online in the fall,” said Pongratz, who plans to major in mathematics. 

For him, it depends on whether COVID-19 cases decrease or whether he feels comfortable with the College of Wooster’s plans to keep students safe. According to the college’s website, it is designing courses so students who need to learn remotely can do so. Pongratz said only two things would make him consider attending face-to-face classes at all this school year: stricter standards or a vaccine to fight COVID-19.

“I’m hoping they’re going to make everyone get tested,” he said. “So, everyone that tests negative — you’re good. Everyone that tests positive, well, you gotta go quarantine before you can interact with your peers.”

While many of his friends are attending college on their respective campuses, Pongratz will continue to learn remotely. He said he and members of his family are considered high-risk, and he doesn’t want to risk exposing himself or his family by attending school on campus. 

“I have allergy problems that are caused by an autoimmune disease,” Pongratz said. “My mom is recovering from chemotherapy, and my sister has one kidney. I’m scared for me and my family because if one of us actually does or did have it, and we were to actually get sick, then that could be really bad.” 

Detroiter in Canada 'ready to adapt' 

Zwena Gray, 18, has ties to Michigan, but hasn't let COVID-19 keep her here for long. 

Gray is from Detroit, but for the last two years she has been part of a program called the Semester School Network, which allows students to learn at different schools across the nation each semester. Gray attended schools in California, Maine, Wisconsin and New York. 

Gray described the experience as an exciting, fun way to study while exploring the country. Adjusting to new cities was never challenging because “the community in those schools were really tight,” she said. Because of COVID-19, she returned to Michigan to finish high school online. She received her diploma from CITYterm, a school in New York.

Gray has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Canada because her mother is Canadian-born. She lives in Alberta, Canada — more than 2,000 miles away from Detroit. She moved there because the province has fewer confirmed COVID-19 cases deaths than Michigan. Because Gray crossed an international border to live in Canada, she quarantined at her aunt and uncle’s home upon her arrival. 

“I just got out of two weeks of hard-core quarantine — like I couldn’t even get bottled water or my own food,” Gray said last month, adding that the quarantine was government-mandated.

Gray said her original plan was to “go on a gap semester for the fall to go hiking and climbing in Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. Then, to the University of Alberta in the spring.”

However, because of COVID-19, she has decided to stay in Alberta to “work and take some (online) classes before going to University.” 

She plans to apply to the University of Alberta in the fall so she can start her semester in January. There, she plans to major in environmental sciences and minor in political science. 

Gray is hopeful that at least some classes at the University of Alberta will be in-person. Until then, she said she will continue to live in Canada, where she wants to work with community organizing. 

“This all keeps me on my toes,” she said. “I’m not getting too connected to a set-in-stone plan, and I’m ready to adapt.” 

Astana Gaffney is a 2020 Detroit Free Press summer apprentice. 

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