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After a pandemic senior year, Utah students feel ‘the class of 2021 has it way worse’ than last year’s graduates

While the class of 2020 got most of a normal school year, 2021′s seniors have been masked, socially distanced and steeped in the pandemic all year.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cyprus High School student body president, Shelby Lynn Green, on Tuesday, May 4, 2021.

Shelby Lynn Green had dreams for her senior year of high school: Football games. Assemblies. Dances. Graduation.

Instead, the Cyprus High School student body president said, her senior year has been “devastating.” Traditional activities have been cancelled or modified. Masks and social distancing are a nearly constant requirement. Nothing has been the same.

“It just kind of hasn’t lived up to anything that we expected,” she said, “or were hoping for when it came to this year.”

While the class of 2020 got three-quarters of a normal school year, she points out, the class of 2021 hasn’t had a single day of normalcy. “I would almost rather trade prom and graduation for the rest of my senior year,” she said. “The class of 2021 has it way worse.”

As graduation ceremonies and celebrations approach, Green is among the 40,812 Utah seniors who experienced a full school year of high school traditions changed, disrupted or cancelled by COVID-19 restrictions, according to the Utah State Board of Education.

After Utah’s schools closed last spring, K-12 students returned to classes this fall, with 40 of the state’s 41 school districts offering in-person learning for a majority of the days each week. Only the Salt Lake City School District started and remained entirely online for months, with its school board members citing the high coronavirus case numbers in the capital city. It began offering in-person classes to high school students on Feb. 8.

But while more than 90% of Salt Lake City’s kids — or about 18,800 of its roughly 20,500 students — have now returned to its schools, some seniors are still opting to learn online.

Lux Soule, a senior at East High School, said most of her peers have continued learning remotely. She hasn’t returned to in-person classes herself because she’s not fully vaccinated yet, she said, and because some people are refusing to wear masks, and it’s difficult to practice social distancing in school.

“So I just thought (online learning) was the safest option for me and my family,” Soule said.

Tory Peters, a senior at West High School, said she chose remote learning because she didn’t feel comfortable being close to other people in classrooms and halls. Now that she’s been vaccinated, Peters said, she’s used to being home and feels she wouldn’t know many people if she went back. Like Soule, her impression is that most of her peers are still choosing remote learning.

“Especially in my honors, AP and IB classes, it seems like most people … are remote,” she said.

Soule said the past year has been isolating and lonely for her, while Peters said she’s struggled to stay motived without the friendships and sports teams that typically keep her connected to her peers.

They were among nearly two dozen seniors who told The Salt Lake Tribune they were experiencing burnout, isolation and poor mental health. Grace Marsh, a senior at Skyline High School, wrote, “My motivation levels have never been so low. I’m just trying to push through the rest of fourth quarter.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) East High School senior Lux Soule in front of the Salt Lake City school on Monday, May 17, 2021.

Marsh, the captain of Skyline’s girls basketball team, chooses remote learning because she doesn’t want to let her team down by getting sick, she said in an interview. But school feels like twice as much work as before, she added, between watching lectures and doing homework. She’s also missed the camaraderie of camps, pre-season practices and other activities with her team.

For some students, the challenges of the pandemic have contributed to lower grades. While grades are improving in the Salt Lake School District, for example, scores are still lower on average than pre-pandemic levels, The Tribune recently reported.

Now, as seniors prepare to graduate, it’s unclear if they’ll choose to pursue college, trade school or other post-high school endeavors at the same pace as before. And for those who do, it’s uncertain if they’ll be prepared for the challenges of their new pursuits.

Some seniors tackle adulthood early

Simply put, is the class of 2021 OK? If you ask Brandy Oliver, it depends on the student.

Oliver, a counselor at Granger High School in the Granite School District, said she has some students who are “flourishing” now, and others who are struggling.

She’s noticed that at her school, many high school seniors are working full time to help support their families, in addition to attending school full time.

Out of Granger High’s diverse student body of 3,287 kids, 2,195 are considered “economically disadvantaged,” according to data from the Utah State Board of Education. An economically disadvantaged student is one who qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch, explained Mark Peterson, the board’s public relations director.

“There (are) a lot of expectations, I think, from home and from school for the students,” Oliver said. She said she more often hears from parents, worried that their child is anxious or depressed, than she hears students themselves asking for support for their mental health.

“We have a lot of students who are really resilient,” she said. “These kids are doing the juggling act that we expect of them in college. … I feel like these kids have had to grow up much faster than perhaps their peers did five years ago.”

Hillary Emmer, president of the Utah School Counselor Association, said her colleagues have seen an overall rise in anxiety and depression in schools — but added that students also are more resilient than people realize.

High school seniors have not just survived their untraditional school year, but they’ve made the best of it, she said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tory Peters, a senior, in front of West High School on Thursday, May 13, 2021. She chose to continue with remote learning after classrooms opened in February, she said, because she didn’t feel comfortable being close to other people in classrooms and halls.

“Kudos to every single one of them,” Emmer said. “You did it. You made it through (even though) everything was stacked against you to make this the most difficult year ever.”

Reagan Mathews, a senior at Skyridge High School, told The Tribune that the uncertainties of her senior year have taught her “to adapt and depend on myself to find motivation and make the most of what I have.”

She also said she’s been inspired by the creativity of people trying to better the world during the pandemic, which has helped her come to terms with not getting a traditional senior year.

“We have an amazing opportunity to prove to the world that our generation can rise above despite challenges thrown our way,” she said.

Annelise Anderson, a senior at Springville High School, said she was angry at the beginning of the school year, “but as the year has gone on, I have found ways to still be social and be happy.” And Peters, the senior at West High, said, “There’s so much more ahead (and) it’s not good to dwell on the past.”

That’s not to say high school seniors don’t have concerns.

“I still plan on attending college in the fall, but I am a bit worried about what that experience is going to be like,” wrote Mathews. “I want to be able to get involved and go do something with my life and time, but that proves to be very hard when you’re online all day.”

Anderson added that the pandemic has “made me wonder about college and if it is worth it to go and live in the dorms... if the classes are just going to be online.”

Universities concerned?

Just making decisions about college has been difficult, Marsh said. Most schools she talked to offered only virtual tours or pictures of campus.

At Grinnell College, a private liberal arts school in Iowa where she’ll start classes this fall, she was allowed to tour only the gym. She doesn’t know what the dorms, bathrooms or other facilities look like, she said.

“It’s definitely going to be difficult,” Marsh said, “but everyone else is going to be in the same boat, too.”

But colleges aren’t necessarily worried about the effects of COVID-19 on their incoming classes of first-year students.

The University of Utah isn’t concerned about graduating seniors being ready for college, academically or socially, said Steve Robinson, senior associate vice president for enrollment management. The school isn’t worried about enrollment levels, either — in fact, Robinson said, the fall class of 2020 was the biggest and most diverse incoming class the school has ever seen.

And while the makeup of this year’s group of first-year students won’t be clear until August, he said, application numbers have gone up “significantly.”

“What we’re seeing from students is a high degree of versatility,” he said. “Certainly, (these have) not been ideal circumstances. But we know that they are still engaged through virtual learning.”

High school counselors who have been working with Utah State University officials are concerned about students who are graduating, said Katie Jo North, executive director of new student enrollment at USU.

“We’ve got a lot of research going into how these students are going to fare once they get here,” North said. “So I know that that’s something that the university is concerned about, (and) we’re making sure that we have a lot of opportunities in place for them for mentorship.”

North said it’s unclear how big USU’s incoming class will be this fall. Registration isn’t open yet, but USU’s housing applications and orientation registrations are lagging behind, she said, and “what we don’t know right now is if they’re going to catch up.”

The school is planning for in-person classes and pushed back its registration dates in order to plan for as many in-person options as possible, she said.

“The students have missed out on a lot so far,” North said. “So our hope is that we can get them here. … We’re going to continue with the COVID protocols that we need to keep people safe. But we want next year to look very different than it was this year.”

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