High school seniors make the most of their final school year despite pandemic.
East County high school students say that at least in 2021, they have more time to plan ahead when it comes to events being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
They have seen how the class of 2020 was affected, the students not being able to attend classes on campus and missing out on end-of-school-year highlight events. By the time the class of 2021 began the school year, the seniors understood they needed to appreciate all their events, big or small, virtual or live, that marked the end of their high school careers.
“I’m just glad we’re still here, and we’re still making those memories, no matter what circumstances we’re under,” said Trisha Pitchala, a senior at Braden River High School. “Knowing that [last year’s seniors] weren’t able to come back made me more grateful for all the things left.”
Pitchala said this year’s seniors know not to take anything for granted because “every day is never promised.”
She said she learned from last year’s end of the school year to cherish every day of her senior year.
Kaylen Rivers, a senior at The Out-of-Door Academy, said she wasn’t sure last summer what to expect when the school year began. Schools were trying to decide how to adjust to learning in a COVID-19 environment, and she had lost her job at Menchies at University Town Center due to being high risk from asthma.
However, she returned to campus for the start of the school year and experienced a sense of normalcy by seeing her friends even if it meant wearing a mask.
“It was so strange,” Rivers said. “But I know ODA is doing everything it can to make it as normal as possible.”
Unlike last year’s seniors, who saw their spring sports canceled, Rivers was grateful to compete in her final season of volleyball even if the season was altered due to pandemic guidelines.
“I thought everything was going to be completely different,” she said. “I thought I was going to miss out on parts of school I loved, and having that one thing that I knew I had, like, ‘OK, I get to play volleyball after school,’ helped me get through the day without being too disappointed about the situation.”
Ella Grogan, a senior at Lakewood Ranch High School, was disappointed she couldn’t go to her final homecoming in the fall but was grateful to dress up for spirit week.
“With prom and homecoming, everything’s just a little different,” she said.
Grogan, the public relations officer for the school’s Student Government Association, said the organization wants to plan a socially distant homecoming for this semester, especially if the prom isn’t an option.
As seniors begin their final semester of high school, they remain cautiously optimistic. They are hoping the schools can return to a normal graduation. But if not, they would like a ceremony similar to what Braden River and Lakewood Ranch had outdoors at LECOM Park.
Being forced to adapt to the new normal and learn how to connect with others virtually has given seniors opportunities to develop leadership skills and skills related to technology that could help them after graduation.
For example, Braden River High senior Ashley Zeitz, the president of the Key Club, and Grogan, the president of Lakewood Ranch’s National Honor Society, have had to coordinate virtual events for their club members to be able to volunteer on top of ensuring any in-person events were safe and followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Seniors have to deal with other changes that aren’t related to events or day-to-day student life but that increase stress. A big part of their senior year is applying to colleges or setting up plans after graduation. Grogan said the application process has become more difficult because the pandemic prevents seniors from visiting college campuses.
On top of the stress, they are trying to enjoy the social aspect of their final year.
“This is the last year to be with people you grew up with, and I’m personally planning on going out of state [after graduation], so I’ll probably not see 99% of the people here,” Grogan said. “It has just been a hard pill to swallow that I won’t be able to spend as much time with everyone as I was hoping.”
Despite hardships, the seniors say they will make the most of their senior year, pandemic or not.
Lakewood Ranch High School senior James Archibald is doing e-learning full time but said his classes are going more smoothly now than in March, when the students were first forced into the program.
Archibald said Schoology, the online learning platform the School District of Manatee County uses, is more organized and that assignments are more in-depth compared to last year.