Back to the Future: What would our parents have done in a pandemic?

Back then, online school was just a science fiction dream of the future.


graphic by Emily McNally

A photo collage of our parents, class of 1985, 86, 89, and 92 in high school!

Our parents always have stories to tell us about their high school experiences–the cars, the dances, the classes, and more. 

What will we tell our children about? Masks? Virtual school? Problems with Wi-Fi? 

An average day of high school for most of our parents was different than today: Walking (or even running) to school, showering at school, homerooms and lockers.

Our lockers are empty. When’s the last time anyone had a locker? So much has changed.

When Covid struck we didn’t think it would change everyone’s lives so drastically. 

High school social life is down the drain.

Jim McNally went to several proms as a high school student at Dulaney High School in 1985. His daughter, Emily, may not get more than a virtual prom photo session.

“I lost count of how many proms I attended. If anybody asked me to go, I would,” said Jim. “It became an event I didn’t really care much about, just something to do, and I’d be anybody’s plus one if they needed it.”  

Mary McNally and her prom date, Jody Conley in 1986.

Prom was not so much a big deal for him. Now that prom involves limousines, expensive dresses, months of preparation, and elaborate photo shoots, the loss seems much greater.

Covid took that opportunity away.

“Prom was a lot of fun. We had it in the gym and they decorated it really really nice,” said Mary McNally. “This was in 1986 in May or April. We also had a ring dance when I was a junior for when we got our class rings.”

Mary understands how her daughter feels. She said, “I’d be sad because it’s one of those high school memories that you look forward to. We didn’t have a football team so homecoming wasn’t really a big thing, prom was all the rage.”

While others can agree on some parts of this with Mary.

(left to to right) Frank Fierro, Beth Thren, Alexis Morrison, Neal Metz, Stacy Seiler, and Jamie Cambria Beth Thren and her friends pose for prom pictures before they go to prom.

“Prom wasn’t as big as it is now ,and I didn’t really care about it, as much as students do today. Still, it was something to look forward to doing with my friends,” Beth Thren said

Of course missing prom isn’t as big a deal as missing actual school and missing the opportunity to make friends all throughout high school. 

“I can understand why juniors and seniors would be angry about missing prom. And I feel for the students that are social and really love going to school to learn and see friends,” Marissa DePalma’s mother, Tara Szyper said. “My daughter is a junior and has only had one complete year of high school, which was freshman year! And who knows if next year will be in person-hybrid or normal.” 

Online school is so impersonal–give me back desks and study packets.

There’s no way technology was ready for schools to teach online in the 1980’s. What if this pandemic had hit our parents’ schools?

“I think the school would have sent homework to our homes on paper that would need to be sent back to be graded,” Szyper said. 

Andrea Brenner (left) and Tara Szyper (Right). Tara Szyper in the year book.

In the 1980’s the personal computer was just being invented.  The cell phone was a clunky phone in a huge, heavy box. Online school was just a science fiction dream of the future.

“If in-person school was closed, it would have been mostly mail, printed textbooks and worksheets, independent research projects, and weekly phone calls with teachers,” Beth Thren said, trying to imagine the past melding with the future.

In the 1980’s, with an imaginary pandemic, schools would have had to find another way to communicate with their students because of the lack of technology.

“The only time I got to touch a computer was in “computer class” where we learned Basic and Pascal coding languages. You have much less supervision in some ways, and more in others – less in that you have your own phone, so you can talk to your friends whenever you want, but more in that you put your lives out on the internet for all to see,” Thren said. 

And our teachers get to see these large differences from their high school experience to how high school is now in action!

“I was delighted when I received my first electric typewriter,” said Mrs. Natalie Rebetsky, English teacher. “The idea that I would be home during a pandemic conjures hours of worksheets and textbooks–no YouTube or instructional videos. It would have been very dull.”

Mary McNally (right) and her friend, Khristie Schultz (left) smile after graduation, 1986.

Like today, school from home would have worked well for some students, and not at all for others. There is no real way to tell, but there are far more supports for students today than yesterday.

“Eliminating the social distractions and being more independent would have been good for me academically; however, interpersonal social skills would have suffered,” Thren said. “But I think these kids are going to be much better prepared for the technology of tomorrow because of this experience. Especially ones who wind up in the STEM sectors of the workforce.”

How would our parents have handled “coronavirus rules”?

There weren’t as many theories and skepticism of our government when our  parents were in high school. There’s such a fine line between political sides now, so many have trouble trusting our government.

“People listened more back then, and you didn’t dare not do what your parents told you. My generation around that time would have definitely handled it a lot better than people today,” said Mary.

(left to right) Sarah Deam, Candice Wallis, and Beth Thren at the 1993 Merry-Go-Round corporate party for store managers at Depford Mall, NJ.

Another thing to consider if their generation would have handled this all better, is their use of free time and responsibility. 

“Usually I was scraping money together to pay for gas, so I didn’t go out a lot. And most people didn’t go to restaurants or shopping at malls,” said Mary. 

Without the constant urge for her to go out in public and socialize, social distancing wouldn’t have been as much of a problem as it is now. They definitely would’ve listened to directions better, controlling the virus faster and more efficiently. 

“I think getting to follow any rules is difficult. It’s the time in our lives to push boundaries and discover the teen consequences for that. I would hope that my empathy for others would outweigh any selfish desires to do what I want to do, but I’m not sure that empathy was developed enough at that age,” Thren said 

What made their high school experience memorable?

They didn’t have the advanced technology that we are lucky to use today. So how did they have fun? There’s so many unanswered questions that we never really thought about.

Would you or your parents have handled the pandemic well back then?


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All schools have traditions and exciting activities that most students remember well.

“There was a lot of freedom in my school. It was almost like a country club,” Jim said. “That prepared me for college. The freedom helped me learn what the college environment was like. I also had a really good group of friends.” 

Jim was the captain of his cross country team. Many of his best memories come from running for Dulaney.

When I was in high school, I led my cross country team to the state championships my junior year, so that was really fun and exciting,” said Jim. “I was the first runner in, and we won!”

Jim McNally (top 5th) and the Dulaney varsity Track and Field team pose for a team picture in 1984.

Sports are something that many teens are involved in. Some of their favorite high school memories spark from playing for their school. 

Today that’s not always an option. With Covid restrictions, students can’t always play sports, or at least not the way they’re used to, which takes away from their favorite activities of high school.

Midfielder for Linganore’s girls soccer team, Catherine Bowers has had trouble getting noticed by colleges due to

these new restrictions. 

“During games and practices we have to wear masks, which makes it hard to breathe. And when soccer was initially canceled I wasn’t able to film videos to send college coaches,” Bowers said. 

Catherine Bowers dribbles the ball towards goal before coronavirus.

Maybe high school has changed for the better. Even if it might not feel like that right now. 

“What made high school memorable was a couple of really good teachers, a first love, and some good books, but I don’t put too much weight on the rest of it,” said Thren. “The mean girls, the old, abusive nuns, were just a bridge to college and freedom for me. This sounds very different at this school, and I’m so glad you students are benefiting from more progressive ways of learning.”