The “gap year” is associated with high school grads, who want to delay their matriculation to higher ed institutions for reasons as varied as a desire to travel abroad, a period to gain maturity around life skills and a time to join the workforce and shore up finances before they have to shell out for tuition. Or some who are in college, who also need to take a break. But the COVID pandemic has transformed that narrative and expanded the notion of who takes a gap year.

“Broadly speaking, I’ve seen data that says we might expect 400,000 youth taking a gap year this year. And normally, we see close to 40,000,” according to Ethan Knight, executive director of the Gap Year Association, a nonprofit that focuses on gap year advice, opportunities, and research. 

That 10-fold potential increase in opt outs has seen many students decide to not enroll, or re-enroll since the full-on college campus experience they envisioned and may have signed up for is now lost in a haze of increased remote and hybrid learning and a diminished schedule of in-person classes. Like thousands of students across the country, frustrated with paying full tuition for online class and a loss of connectivity with other students and professors, Nidhi Krishnan is opting for a break in her studies from Washington University in St. Louis. For Krishnan, 19, the COVID-19 pandemic gave her an opportunity to explore a new-found desire to learn about urban issues years before she graduates.

“I grew up as a Brown girl in a white town,” said Krishnan, who is from Bloomington, Indiana. “I came here to do political science and economics. I never used to think about urban issues. Now, that’s my big passion. I thought of St. Louis as just the place where Wash U. happened to be, not a place I intended to get involved with.”

So far Krishnan has interned with the ArchCity Defenders, the ACLU of Missouri, the St. Louis Regional Chamber and other community-based agencies. She currently serves as a Research Fellow with WEPOWER, a nonprofit aiming to re-design equitable education, economic, health, and justice systems.

The COVID-induced break is not just manifesting at the higher ed level. Some parents of pre-K students balked at having their five-year-old stuck in front of a screen for hours on end and opted for extended preschool, learning pods or bypassing formal education all together. “I thought my tears would be because I was sending my baby to school, not because I was worrying if the decision to keep him out of school this year was the wrong one,” Amy Neier, who lives in Peoria, Ariz., told Politico New Jersey, last year.

“Some parents are leaving their kids in their current pre-K or child care programs but a lot of parents don’t have that option, so where are these kids?” said Patricia Lozano, executive director of Early Edge California, in the same article. “Kindergarten is not mandatory so some parents think it’s not a big deal. It is. A year for a 5-year-old is a long time.”

But no matter where you are on the education spectrum, families and students with resources are at a greater advantage when it comes to holding young kids back or having young adults decide to skip a year of college. Many working-class and middle-class African American families, who are disproportionally essential workers, can’t afford extended child care nor to simply withdraw their kids from formal learning.

Krishnan, who admits she came from “privilege,” was awarded the full-tuition John B. Ervin Scholarship, named after the renowned educator and community leader. The scholarship used to be reserved for Black students but has since expanded its outreach. All scholars, however, must adhere to the scholarship’s four pillars of academic excellence, leadership, community service, and diversity. Those “pillars” have not been lost on Krishnan, who spent her first 18 years of life in a city with a bit more than 4 percent of a Black population. The scholarship and entrance into Washington University last year exposed her to a whole new world of diversity and community engagement.

Krishnan said her parents have been “super supportive” of her decisions and she has no regrets about postponing classes for a year. “My friend’s classes are online. Sometimes professors just give reading assignments, and assign a paper,” Krishnan added. “That’s not what I want my scholarship to be about. College is supposed to be part of my formative years. I’ve probably learned more in one and a half years hanging out with my friends and being in the workforce than I would have learned in college this year.”

With reporting by Sylvester Brown Jr. The St. Louis American