In December, as the holidays creep closer and the first half of the school year comes to an end, teachers and students usually breathe a sigh of relief at the closing of the doors and the chance to spend two weeks at home.
That was in the before times.
Now, hardly anyone has seen the inside of a classroom since last spring and nearly everyone has spent months and months at home.
For kindergarteners, it meant no first bus ride and nervous parents at drop-off. Elementary kids haven’t been spending recess on the playground, and middle schoolers used to spending afternoons practicing with their school bands or rehearsing for plays have seen the stage lights go dark.
But high school seniors may have lost the most this year.
When COVID-19 shut schools down last April, members of the Class of 2020 had already celebrated their homecoming game and had the opportunity to spend more than half the year with their classmates, roaming the halls, chatting between classes and engaging in normal senior activities. Prom was canceled and graduation looked a little different, but the situation seemed temporary.
“When I saw their graduation get shut down, I started to worry a little bit about my senior year, and through the summer it didn’t get any better,” said South Albany High School senior Mason Stocking. “It just got worse, and it looked more gloomy for my senior year.”
The Greater Albany School District spent the summer planning a hybrid model that would see students return to classrooms on a rotating basis, in smaller cohorts for most of the week. But COVID-19 continued to spread, and come fall, Oregon’s daily case counts began to rise steadily.
All students, with a few exceptions for those with special education needs, were kept on a comprehensive distance learning model. And while the state eventually lowered metrics in an attempt to allow students back to school, Linn and Benton County have continued to fall far short of those benchmarks.
The result has been students out of classes for the entirety of the 2020-2021 school year so far, with milestone after milestone passing seniors by.
And while Gov. Kate Brown announced on Wednesday that districts, and not the state, can begin to determine whether or not students can return to the classroom beginning in 2021, ambiguity surrounded the actual policy change.
State metrics surrounding COVID-19 cases by county will no longer be the determining factor in when schools can reopen. Brown prioritized bringing elementary students back first, so just when and how all students will return to in-person learning is still unclear.
“Our class has never been to a prom,” said Samara Shinholster-Whisenhunt, a senior at West Albany. “It was canceled last year. We went to homecoming and had winter formal. Those were the only two dances we got. And that’s OK. I think it’s good to experience those activities, but with the situation we’re in, you can’t be mad. You just have to roll with it and be positive.”
It’s a mindset some seniors have taken on as they live through a pandemic that has coincided with what was supposed to be a year of celebration.
“We’re literally living through history,” Shinholster-Whisenhunt said. “We’re living through so many things, and it’s crazy that it’s happening all at once. But there’s also good in it. You have to stay positive and optimistic. You can’t just quit because you’re in a situation you don’t like. You have to make it the best you can be.”
South Albany senior Jadah Schmidtke said she subscribes to that philosophy as well.
On a normal Friday night in December, she would be at a basketball game watching her friend play before the group would go out to dinner and have a sleepover.
Now, on Friday night, she stays home.
“I learned how to play guitar and piano this year, though,” she said. “There wasn’t anything else to do.”
The volleyball and track and field athlete said she tries to stay in shape while the teams aren’t practicing or having games.
Stocking, a track and field athlete himself, said staying in shape has helped him through the pandemic.
“It takes my mind off of it,” he said. “Luckily, (in) my family, being active is important.” It’s advice he said he would give to his classmates as the days drag on in front of computer screens.
“It’s exhausting to sit and stare at a screen for up to eight hours or more,” he said. “Something I overlooked with CDL is the social interaction or lack thereof. But as the weeks carried on, I realized social interaction, even small talk, is very important for mental health.”
Both Schmidkte and Shinholster-Whisenhunt agree that they'd rather not be restricted to comprehensive distance learning, but like everything else this year, they’ve grown to accept it.
“It’s what you make of it, and it’s based on the reaction you give,” Stocking said. “I have been following all protocols, and while it’s not ideal having to stay at home and not being able to go out to dinner or other simple things, I do try to make the best of it. Being at home, I can spend more time doing different hobbies, I can put more time towards my college applications. Being in school, I don’t think I would have had the same amount of time.”
All three seniors have put applications in for college and are gearing up for life after high school and a senior year experience that is unique to them.
“It’s been one of the hardest years ever because it’s a social part of your life that was taken away,” Schmidtke said.
“I feel like our generation that’s in high school right now, you’ve seen stats about depression and anxiety and all of those sad things,” Shinholster-Whisenhunt said, “but it’s prime time to work on your mental health and work on yourself. I’m going to tell my kids that, yeah, it sucked and it was hard, but I made it through.”