PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — The high school graduating classes of 2020 and now 2021 have certainly dealt with more challenges than any before them.
A new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center showed a 22% decline in students going to college immediately after graduating in 2020 because of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But in a positive sign, local school counselors said they're now seeing an increase in college applications over last year.
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"I think it's our resilience to make success unavoidable for our students that has gotten us through this," said Wanda Thomas, a school counselor at Palm Beach Lakes Community High School in West Palm Beach.
Thomas is modifying her office hours, holding virtual sessions, and finding new ways to help students get to where they want to go.
"Because they are not on campus with us to dialogue with face-to-face, we’re still kind of figuring out who has been left behind and who has not done what is necessary," Thomas said.
"It's been challenging, but also very interactive with my counselor," said Alivia Latimore, a student at Palm Beach Lakes Community High School who's planning to go to the University of Central Florida.
"We had to change things up dramatically," said Eunice Vivar, the high school counseling administrator for the School District of Palm Beach County.
According to Vivar, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 caused fewer students to apply for college, instead opting to take a year off.
"Now we’ve had a year where we are learning how to do this," Vivar said. "Our school counselors have really done some innovative things."
Among those innovative things, Vivar said, are virtual college fairs which actually brought in more students and schools participating. In addition, Vivar said graduates are seizing new opportunities.
"They are opting to try for schools that they wouldn’t have tried for before because they’re not asking for SAT and ACT scores," Vivar said.
"I'm the first person in my family to go to college," said Dodlee Mosilme, a Lake Worth Community High School senior and band member.
Mosilme, who has dreams of becoming a doctor, helps care for his 12 nieces and nephews.
"They push me to do everything that I'm doing right now, because I want to give them something I didn’t have when I was younger," Mosilme said.
The teen will head to Florida Atlantic University or Florida State University, thanks to help from a non-profit organization called Path To College.
"Our program is based on helping driven students help themselves," said Christine Sylvain, the executive director and founder of Path To College.
The organization mentors and supports low-income students to help them get to higher education, including one-on-one guidance, SAT prep, leadership, development, and enrichment opportunities, internship placement, and more.
"It gives students the opportunity to really blossom, to show grit, to have the wraparound support they need to truly overcome some of their challenges," Sylvain said.
It's that high level of support that Sylvain said is needed now more than ever.
"We did a very quick pandemic pivot," Sylvain said. "We launched a campaign, 'Your Future Is Not Quarantined,' and we opened all our college prep workshops nationwide to any student interested."
"Path To College has helped me to be more bold in my community, in my education," Mosilme said. "Path To College, with their mission to enrich and serve and educate us, has really helped me grow as leader and scholar."
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Counselors said they expect more students to stay closer to home for college because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and just want to make sure they reach everyone.
"There are still students out there that need help," Thomas said. "We're still gonna do everything we can to make sure we leave no child behind."
The School District of Palm Beach County said the data for the class of 2020 is delayed because of the pandemic, and school districts in St. Lucie, Martin, and Okeechobee counties said they don't keep those statistics.
The School District of Indian River County did not get back to our request for information.
To learn more about Path To College, click here.