Zooming into adulthood
High school seniors reflect on sense of loss in non-traditional times
On a Friday in March, Lauryn Sargent, 18, recalls telling one of her classmates, "can't wait to see you on Monday."
"No one was really expecting to not go back to school for a long period of time — and not even return," said the Brattleboro Union High School senior.
The 380-plus members of the class of 2020 among Brattleboro, Twin Valley, Bellows Falls, Leland & Gray and Hinsdale (N.H.) high schools — along with their peers across the country — are grappling with the loss of a traditional senior year in the COVID-19 pandemic. With schools closed to thwart the spread of the virus, classes have moved online and students are learning from their homes instead of in the company of their friends and teachers. Rites of passage, such as prom and graduation ceremonies, as well as perks such as Senior Skip Day, awards nights and the class prank, are on hold or canceled.
Seniors across the region say they struggle with remote classes and the loss of day-to-day interactions inside their respective school buildings. Maggie St. John, 17, the senior class valedictorian at Hinsdale High School, said while online learning has been doable, she would much rather be in the classroom with her peers and teachers.
"Learning from home is a whole different environment," she said. "It's hard to just sit down and learn."
Sargent said she has classes with her favorite teachers, and wishes she could enjoy their personalities in the classroom. Many instructors conduct classes via Zoom, a video meeting program. Sargent said she and her classmates have regularly scheduled Zoom calls with their teachers, and also use Google Classroom, an online file sharing and grading program.
"To be honest, I don't really like it," Sargent said of distance learning. "I find it hard to find motivation to do it because you're not in school, with the people."
Experts on youth psychology say going to school provides a social experience that is important to teens' development — and that cannot be replicated via digital communication. Laura Kelloway, program manager of Child and Adolescent Services at the Anna Marsh Clinic at the Brattleboro Retreat, noted that the daily structure and classroom dynamics are both lost.
"When you're 17 and 18 and you're trapped inside, and the developmental imperative is to connect and be with your peers, and grow and learn with your peers, and you can't, that's incredibly challenging," said Kelloway, a licensed clinical social worker and parent of a high school senior. "I see kids doing a great job connecting as best they can online, and now, to some degree, at a physical distance, but what my own kid is saying and what kids I know are saying is, it's just not the same."
Gina Onorato, director of counseling and health services at Brattleboro Union High School, commended her colleagues and the students for making a quick switch to remote learning, despite the challenges.
"Our students need a sense of belonging and to be social with others," she said. "There likely is a sense of loss and missed memories while we are completing the remote learning."
Avery White, 17, a senior at Leland & Gray, said her week consists of a couple of Zoom meetings, and the rest of her time is dedicated to homework and studying for finals. She said she enjoys being able to sleep in later than she normally would, but misses being among her friends and teachers.
"One of the reasons as to why I enjoy going to school is because of the wonderful Leland and Gray community," she said. "This is something that I miss now, and is something that I will hold close to me when I go off to college."
Edie Cay, 18, a Brattleboro Union High School senior, said she and her friends socialize regularly via Zoom or FaceTime, a video program by Apple.
"I like face-to-face interaction. With technology between us, it's been kind of challenging," she said. "That obviously doesn't compare to being together — physically being together."
She said she had been looking forward to a traditional graduation ceremony from the beginning of her high school career, and called the loss of senior prom "sad."
"Little things, like Senior Skip Day and class prank — those are things I'll be missing," she said. "In the grand scheme of things, those are minor details, but they are still things the class of 2020 was looking forward to, at least at BUHS."
Kelloway said cumulatively, even the smaller rites of passage add up in terms of giving young people closure on a chapter of their lives.
"All of those things — those little fun things — that a senior can look forward to, they're all rituals that help them within their school community to say goodbye to each other and to their school, and they're missing that," she said. "I do think schools are working really hard to try to find ways to fill that gap, but it is a loss and for some seniors, they were really looking forward to some of those activities that they're missing out on."
In a letter to students, parents and staff on May 19, BUHS Principal Steve Perrin said the school administration made the decision, per current social distancing guidelines, to hold a virtual ceremony in June, but that there is still a possibility for a physical get-together at a later date.
Sargent said she is struggling with the loss of a traditional ceremony at the end of the school year.
"I was just excited that that was the last thing we were going to have, and now that's gone," Sargent said. "It's just hard not to have the traditional things that we all look forward to."
Dylan Dupuis, 17, a senior at Twin Valley Middle High School, said the pandemic has forced him and his classmates to "jump into real life pretty much with no warning at all." On top of attending online classes, he works a job in landscaping.
He has finished all classes required for graduation, and is now taking electives, such as horticulture, online. He said the teacher had to adapt for remote learning since the curriculum involved hands-on gardening. He said the class received materials for building gardens at home, and he is learning to protect gardens from pests.
Remote learning has "its ups and downs," Dupuis said. "I mean, I don't have to be in school all day, but I do miss seeing my buddies, for sure."
Twin Valley Middle High School will host a parade, in vehicles, to honor their seniors on June 6. The graduation ceremony has been postponed to July 25, with a format yet to be decided. According to Principal Anna Roth, options are a physical gathering — which she noted seems unlikely — a "drive-in" at Hayford field or a virtual ceremony.
Dupuis said he will be upset at the loss of a physical ceremony. As one of the class officers, Dupuis is checking in with other students to make sure they are coping. His class, one of the biggest at Twin Valley, is made up of about 40 students.
"I've been looking forward to standing on stage," Dupuis said. "That's just something every senior is working toward for the end of the year."
Brenna LaDuc, 18, a senior at Bellows Falls Union High School, plans to pursue a career in culinary arts, which she will study at Paul Smith's College in Paul Smiths, New York. On top of her online school work, she works part-time at Allen Brothers Farm Market, a Westminster farm stand, convenience store, bakery and nursery. She works in the bakery, making cakes and cupcakes, and calls decorating her specialty.
"If I had known that March 13 would be the last day of my senior year, I would have done things differently," she said. For one, she said would have thanked more people, including her teachers and fellow students, before leaving the school for good.
For Amanda Frankiewicz, a senior at BUHS, the closure of school meant an early foray into her future in the medical field. Frankiewicz, 18, went from working five-hour evening shifts as a licensed nursing assistant at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, to 12-hour overnight shifts — on the front lines of the pandemic.
"We have a designated area for the COVID patients," she said. "A lot of people are getting tested and we have to wear masks at all times."
She became certified as a licensed nursing assistant after a semester-long course at the high school in spring 2019. Her plan after graduation is to take a gap year, then go to college to study nursing.
"I'm just kind of taking it as it comes and trying not to think about it too much," she said. "I think it's easier, that I'm working in it, so I see what's actually happening."
For many students, the school closures meant the loss of extracurricular activities, including the last spring sports season, which the state officially canceled April 30. Cay, a multi-sport athlete at BUHS, played field hockey in the fall and ice hockey in the winter. Due to a knee injury, she was going to be a manager for the lacrosse team in the spring season. She noted that even with the pandemic, she got to play the two sports she had planned on for her senior year, but wishes she had been able to spend time with her lacrosse teammates before graduation.
Kelloway said extracurricular activities are often tied into teenagers' identities.
"A kid who is in band is a musician, and a kid who is playing baseball is an athlete, and often, very much attaches their sense of self and identity with that particular passion," she said. "It's not available right now, and I think that's a really big loss."
Twin Valley senior Jessie Lazelle, 18, said before the school building closed, she went inside nearly every day for pottery and ceramics projects, which she described as "one of my favorite things to do at school ever." She also missed out on activities she would have participated in as a member of the National Honor Society and Student Leadership Council.
Lazelle was part of the decision-making process that led Twin Valley to schedule a vehicle parade on the day graduation was scheduled and to postpone the in-person ceremony to July.
"I'm glad we're doing a parade on the day we were supposed to graduate," she said. "I think it's going to benefit all of the seniors because I know a lot of them have struggled with this whole thing."
LaDuc, of Bellows Falls Union High School, missed out on culinary competitions that would have taken her to Burlington and New York City, and for which she had planned and trained all year long. One was canceled, and the other was moved online, which she said just wasn't the same.
"It's kind of shocking and disappointing," she said. "It was really hard for me."
The end of in-person classes meant the end of working in the school cooking lab, and instead, LaDuc and her fellow culinary students have been limited to book work.
She said she misses Class Night, which is a senior class awards event, and graduation, but knowing all of her classmates are suffering the same losses is some consolation.
"I was looking forward to senior banquet and the cooking competitions, Class Night and graduation. Our school has a traditional graduation, and it's disappointing to have it all taken away from you," she said. "I think we're all struggling with it a lot."
Sydney Hescock, 18, a Leland & Gray senior and softball player, counts the unified season among the school activities she misses the most. In Unified Sports, a program of Special Olympics Vermont, young people with intellectual disabilities partner with players on school sports teams. Hescock said she enjoyed the experience so much that she did an internship working with the Unified participants in the classroom, and plans to study special education in college.
At her school's graduation event — in whatever form it is held — she plans to wear the graduation gown of her father, Robert Hescock, who died of a heart attack in June 2019.
"I wanted to wear my dad's gown because he was always extremely proud of what I have done through the school and my major in college was something that I had talked about with him right before his passing," she said.
She said she looks forward to being able to see her friends, who she said played a major role in helping her overcome her loss.
"My friends have helped a lot. They came that first night without him, along with all of my dad's friends, and stayed for a while," she said. "Not just my friends helped — my dad's friends were our rock and still are."
Hinsdale High School senior Alexis Anderson, 18, had looked forward to her last season of softball. She's played the game since fifth grade and has experienced a number of injuries, which got her interested in being an athletic trainer. She will be traveling to Reading, Pennsylvania, this fall to start her education in athletic training at Alvernia University.
"I miss my friends a lot," Anderson said. "I miss walking the hallways and seeing them."
Anderson said to make up for not seeing her friends face-to-face, she and other Hinsdale seniors have been chatting via text or video. The student council, of which Anderson is a member, recently held an in-person meeting, practicing social distancing and wearing masks. She said the group spoke about graduation and a possible get-together this time next year to celebrate graduation.
Hinsdale's graduation will be held at the Northfield Drive-In on June 9 and there will be prerecorded video addresses from graduates and speakers. Graduates will sit in their cars with their families and will walk to get their diploma when they are called.
St. John, the Hinsdale valedictorian, runs cross-country and track, and said she will miss competing as a senior athlete.
"I've been training for track all winter," she said. "It's hard to have it all taken away."
Her teammate Juliana Yialiades, 18, the Hinsdale senior class president, said she had been looking forward to running the 800-meter and 2-mile races in the state competition.
"And we had a really good relay team," she said. "We were really excited and looking forward to trying our best this season. It's disappointing."
Yialiades said volunteer opportunities for the National Honor Society have been lost, too.
"We put together bags of food for families in our school district, but we haven't been able to take part in that," she said.
Carl Anderson, Alexis' father and Hinsdale's basketball coach, said he has been pleased with the way the teachers and administrators have responded to the needs of the students.
"And the teachers are just as affected," he said. "They don't get to say goodbye to the seniors."
Alexis Anderson said one important thing she has learned is each moment in high school is precious.
"It goes by very fast," she said. "You never know what might happen."
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