This year’s school uniform? Sweatpants and face masks.
Graduating seniors are trading those in for caps and gowns this Friday, as a year like no other comes to a close.
Chaska and Chanhassen high school seniors are trying to put their last year of high school into words — with an emphasis on trying.
“I'm not really feeling like excited or sad. It's been a really weird year, so I don't really know how to feel about it,” says PJ Velazquez, a graduating Chanhassen High School senior.
The sentiment carries the same weight three miles southwest at Chaska High School.
“There's really no words for it,” senior Manjunath Swayampu said. “I’ve never experienced these times before. It’s just like continuous change. The whole class of 2021 just had to keep adapting to continuous changes.”
Chaska High School classmate Lily Esping knows the story.
She traded hallway greetings and lunchtime chatter for socially-distant bonfires with friends; in-person learning for online and, eventually, hybrid.
But the self-described ‘introverted’ senior is staying optimistic as the best four years of her life felt more like two or three.
“It’s better than I expected,” Esping says of the year. “I think a lot of us are just trying to stay afloat, but I think honestly the fact that we’re back in school after being home so long has really helped have a positive mindset.”
She can’t remember the exact day she returned to in-person learning, but what she did that day is clear.
“I sprinted into the building and said I was ready to go,” Esping says.
And ready she and other seniors were.
This year, the varsity soccer team captain and drumline member worked through sports and activity restrictions and schoolwork amid a pandemic. She’s off to the University of Minnesota next year to study engineering.
“I’m just grateful for the experiences that we've had,” she says. “We are having an open graduation. It’s really leaving me on an optimistic note.”
Velasquez kept his focus on varsity wrestling, varsity football and academics, but still has a certain sense of defeat.
“We missed a lot,” he says. “It had a lot of ups and downs … Sadly, I didn't get that many opportunities this year but, I mean, (I) kinda just had to roll with it.”
When officials OK-ed it, Velasquez tried going back to school in-person for maybe a month. But it was during wrestling season, and for him, his health and sports came first. Plus, many of his peers were still learning online and the class blocks switched to close to two hours.
“I wanted to hopefully not catch COVID and ruin my season,” he says.
Still, despite no football playoffs or state, and a lack of wrestling tournaments, he did get to compete in the state wrestling tournament.
“I started feeling a little bitter about this year, but eventually I got over it when I started wrestling. Then I just started focusing more on that for this year,” says Velasquez, who is off to North Dakota State University to study health sciences and wrestle.
So, what was it like being a high school senior during a pandemic?
“Normal is not the word I would use to describe this year. Everything but normal,” Swayampu says.
We’ll take the bad first.
Celebrating sports teams and screaming at the top of your lungs in pep rallies didn’t happen much this year.
Science bowl was “really kind of a mess,” Swayampu says. In typical meets, teams would compete in classrooms and tap buzzers to answer questions. This year, students typed the word “buzz” and hoped their internet didn’t lag.
“This year it's just been like, ‘Oh, let's just do this online instead,’ and people don’t want to do online. They wanna get out of online and experience life in person,” he says.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom.
On the plus side, seniors had a chance to go to socially-distanced events. Chaska High School staff tried to give senior students a “finale”-type of year, Swayampu says.
Prom made a comeback this spring, though some students like Velasquez opted out in favor of a weekend at a cabin.
“Most of the students realized we're not gonna have prom like it used to be. It's just not feasible anywhere, so they accepted what we had and made the most of it,” says Chanhassen High School Principal Doug Bullinger.
“This has been my first prom and my last,” Swayampu says, noting turnout wasn’t the best. “It just kind of felt normal to be honest. It's just like that, oh finally we’re having something to ourselves and just have a fun time with friends.”
Going forward, he plans to study microbiology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.
Bullinger, who just completed his first year at the school, says seniors have been outstanding this year in their attitudes.
“They’re handling it with a lot of grace even though it’s been a frustrating year for everyone,” he says.
Particularly toward the end of the school year, Bullinger says he’s seen senior students really step up. A senior planning committee was born in the spring, opting for things like a senior yard game night last month.
“I think they are more prepared for early adulthood at this point than most of us were when we were in in our mid-20s,” he says. “They’ve just experienced so much shifting and so much change … They’ve learned a remarkable lesson in resilience.”
Going into next year, Bullinger says he hopes he can rebuild a sense of community with students. Soon enough, seniors and underclassmen alike will be getting back — and going forward — to what normal normally is.
His mom kicked him out to find his own place, but luckily his requirements are simple: As long as he’s got food, water and a place to hide out, he’s set.
No, he’s not your first-year college roommate — he’s a black bear (or, rather, a good handful of them) making their way from northern Minnesota to the suburbs to establish their own territory.
The bears, usually 2-year-old males, are being spotted more and more in Scott and Carver counties these past few years.
Take Chaska resident Andy Olson, for example. On June 1, he sat watching a baseball game — Minnesota Twins versus the Baltimore Orioles. It suddenly turned into bear versus suburbia when his puppy began barking at the walking fur outside.
It made itself right at home, garnering plenty of attention on social media. It was not captured by authorities and wandered away on its own.
“There’s a bear right outside your window,” Olson remembered telling his neighbor via a phone call. “And she screamed.”
Not to fear, though.
Local wildlife officials want to make one thing clear: They’re not out to hurt you.
“The bears are just being bears and they're not overly dangerous,” said John Moriarty, Three Rivers Park District senior manager of wildlife.
Black bears, the only bear species in Scott and Carver counties, don’t pose a great deal of danger to humans, said Bob Fashingbauer, area wildlife supervisor with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
He works in the Fish and Wildlife Division for Carver, Dakota, Scott and part of Hennepin counties, but boils down his job for the newspaper: “I can talk about bears.”
Fashingbauer said the bears, active mostly at night and living up to 20 years, don’t like people much.
“Bears want to get away from you quicker than you wanna get away from them. It’s very, very rare that a bear is gonna attack a human being,” he said.
That’s especially true with cubs in tow or if they’re cornered. They feel threatened and just want to get away, Fashingbauer said.
“I know it gets a little unnerving when they're in your neighborhood, but they're a pretty docile animal for the most part,” he said.
Moriarty said the real danger might be surprising to folks.
He remembered a nearby bear sighting near Lake Minnetonka a few years back, garnering a crowd of onlookers. The throng of people led to the bear’s death, he said, by way of not offering the bear a way out.
“People wouldn't give the bear the freedom to escape, and so the police felt that's what made it a dangerous situation. It wasn't the bear — it was the people,” Moriarty said.
Luckily, he said, that mindset is changing. Passersby are realizing the animals aren’t that dangerous to humans.
“It’s like, we’ll leave it alone and it’ll probably wander away overnight and you won’t see it again,” Moriarty said.
When people think of bears, the thought might be closely followed by images of cabins or camping up north. Pine County and north from there is where you start seeing them the most, Fashingbauer said.
“We never really used to consider (south of the Twin Cities) bear habitat or bear territory, but we're seeing more and more bears. They’re not just stragglers,” he said.
They’re mostly looking for brand new habitats to set up shop. Early summer is prime time for young male bears to disperse, exploring for new territories. The young females usually stick closer to home.
Then, the city beguiles them (however briefly).
“(They) just got caught up in the smells and good findings of the city,” Fashingbauer said.
“When bears cruise through the metro, they're just kind of going someplace else and don't stop,” Moriarty added.
That’s why sightings are usually a one-day, one-location deal. Bears visit a city and by the next few days they’ll usually roam into a new one. Where the bears are actually heading is anybody's guess — often they’ll end up back where they started their travels, Fashingbauer said.
Corridors like the Minnesota River make for a decent option. Bears can wander the area for their perfect habitat: a larger patch of woods or an unoccupied space.
“They like to follow the river corridor,” Fashingbauer said. “Although it’s unusual to see a bear in Chaska (for example), it’s not unheard of, especially along the rivers,” Fashingbauer said.
Social media could play a large factor in increased sightings, he added.
The east metro sees bears most often within the Twin Cities suburbs, Moriarty said. They’re basically residents in parts of Anoka and Washington counties.
Because of their tendency to explore the cities briefly, experts point homeowners and bystanders toward a few tips to keep everyone safe.
Their terrific sense of smell leads them to backyard bird feeders, leftover food in garbage bins, or pet food left in dishes outside for a tasty treat.
Seeds and nuts have especially high fat content, so the animals favor them. In the wild, bears eat plants, ants, acorns, berries, beehive contents, carrions (anything already dead), or deer fawns if they’re lucky.
“They can either forage for 12 hours a day and get enough calories they want, or they can spend 10 minutes at a sunflower feeder and get the same amount of calories,” Fashingbauer said.
People should take down their bird feeders, close their garbage bins, and move any pet food indoors to dissuade bears.
If you see a bear in your backyard or passing through, let it be. Feel free to snap a picture for Facebook later, but keep your distance and the bear will wander off eventually. If the animal is very close to the house or puts its paws up to a window, people can make loud noises to scare it away.
“The bear’s not doing anything bad enough to have a death sentence,” Moriarty said, encouraging people to just enjoy the show. “I’m biased, but I think it’s cool to see a bear walk through your backyard.”
But it’s important not to purposely entice them to do so.
Rebel neighbors might try to secretly lure a bear into their backyard for entertainment, then there’s a nuisance on the hands of everyone nearby.
“Oftentimes all it takes is one to two people who (think) it’s kind of neat to have them there,” Fashingbauer said. “If there's one seen in your vicinity ... the best thing to do is take any attractants in for a few days until the bear moves on. It doesn’t help if one person does it and your neighbor (does) not.”
But won’t that deprive the birds? The official answer: Nah.
“Birds don't use feeders that much this time of year anyhow,” Moriarty said, noting they have plenty of bugs and berries to go around.
The only time a bear causes a true safety hazard is when it’s caught in a large roadway system, Fashingbauer said.
Beyond that specific situation, they usually aren’t tranquilized or captured by the DNR.
“Just 'cuz you see a bear, it’s not like having a lion prowl through your backyard,” Moriarty said. “I try to tell people to think of bears as large black raccoons.”
All in all, the worst thing bears can do in the cities is tear down bird feeders. Moriarty said if the animals are outside, leave them be.
In a near-out-of-the-question scenario: if the bear is inside the house?
Then — and pretty much only then — it might be time to pick up the phone.