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Senior experience: Students talk finishing school in the middle of a pandemic

Prior Lake High School Senior Lydia Pavek sat in her room scrolling through her camera album on her phone. In the years before the pandemic, it had captured her and her friends' maskless faces grinning at football games, gearing up for gymnastics competitions and painted blue and gold ready to cheer on their classmates at the school pep rally. Now she only sees her friends on Facetime calls and through a computer screen during school.

Senior Lauren Lindstrom is usually studying her lines this time of year preparing for her opening night performance in one of the school’s mini plays. Instead of getting ready to take the stage or greeting freshmen to help guide them through their first year of high school with Link Crew, she’s sitting at the dinner table talking with her family about the challenges of being a senior during a pandemic.

For Lindstrom and Pavek, COVID-19 has complicated their lives in more ways than they had ever thought possible and completely changed how they imagined their senior year. They’re among the 761 Prior Lake High School seniors and the 3.7 million seniors in the U.S. finishing out their education in the middle of a pandemic.

As most students enter the high school doors as a freshman, they begin to think about the memories to be made in high school and how they will collectively celebrate those moments with those they saw in the halls every day during their senior year. Some look forward to prom planning, others to football games, signing yearbooks, turning tassels and applying to colleges. But for this year’s seniors, those moments may never be reality.

‘It didn’t seem real’

When schools stopped in-person learning in the spring, students never thought it would affect the remainder of their school year — let alone the following one.

“I thought everything was going to go back to normal,” Lindstrom said. “I did not think that this was going to go on for as long as it has. I thought maybe after the summer we're going to get back to normal, things were going to be better. I was going to get to go to football games which is one of my favorite things to do, get to do school activities, get to go to homecoming, get to do all those things in my last year of high school. I did not think that COVID was going to continue this far into the year.”

When news of the first shutdown came mid-March, Pavek thought there would be just a two-week break before she returned to the classroom.

“It didn't seem real. I did not think it would last this long. I thought for sure my first day of senior year everything would totally back to normal,” she said.

But the 2019-20 school year was finished through distance learning and uncertainty surrounded the decision about fall education throughout the summer.

School clubs, sports and social life

With no spikes in case numbers, students returned to school this fall with masks on and more distance between them in the halls as half of them learned from home. There was hope normalcy was beginning to return and Pavek and Lindstrom looked forward to after school activities and sports after months of being away from friends.

For Pavek this meant planning fun events for her and the members of the Unified Club to enjoy with special needs students and volunteering with the Junior Optimist Club. She’s still involved, but meetings are conducted virtually and the experience isn’t the same. Pavek may also lose her senior gymnastics season which was supposed to begin early November, but has been postponed once again due to shutdowns.

“I've always been super involved. I've always been doing things after school, getting home late, doing homework, and now, the whole day is just kind of mushed into one. It's just homework, activities, all at home at the same time,” Pavek said. “It's a whole new lifestyle I need to adjust to.”

COVID has cancelled the plays Lindstrom participates in during the school year and stopped her from giving tours of the school to freshmen and meeting them face-to-face for Link Club.

Between no in-person extracurriculars, hybrid learning and now distance learning the pandemic has been a challenge mentally for Lindstrom, she said.

“I like to see people and I'm an extrovert so being cooped up inside my house all day, every day for months is very difficult,” she said.

Lindstrom took up painting to keep her mind off things and talks with her family regularly about the struggles of being a senior during these unprecedented times.

“I tried to keep myself busy and not get sucked into the news about what's going on. Having a supportive family really helps me, talking to my friends over Facetime and just trying to stay connected with people as much as I could,” she said.

While Facetime and making friends over social media have helped make the extra time spent at home easier, there are still irreplaceable moments these seniors won’t be able to experience because of the pandemic.

As seniors, Pavek and Lindstrom were supposed to be sitting in the senior section of the bleachers cheering on the Lakers at their home games. Sitting in the first two rows of the bleachers might seem trivial, but they’ve waited three years to take those seats and now they won’t have the chance.

COVID put a stop to prom for them as juniors last spring and the homecoming dance this fall. The girls still have hope for prom this coming spring, but with the uncertainty of when students will be able to return to school it may not be an event the Class of 2021 gets to experience at all.

“I was just looking back at my pictures the other day and I was going through all my homecoming spirit days from freshman and sophomore year, even junior year. It's just weird to look back and see that’s actually what we did instead of sitting at home on Google Meets all day,” Pavek said.

Dances, sports, extracurriculars, making class T shirts, planning a spring break trip — there’s a lot to look forward to during senior year, but for the Class of 2021 it feels like they’re missing out.

“It doesn't really feel like senior year because usually you get to do things and have fun. It’s your last year and it's supposed to be a celebration in a sense and I don’t get all of that,” Lindstrom said. “A lot has been cancelled and taken away from students.”

Future unclear

Typically, students are dreaming of what campus they’ll be roaming next fall, applying to universities and awaiting acceptance letters, but COVID has also complicated the question seniors are asked most, ”What college will you be attending?”

“College decisions are hard because no campuses are open for tours right now, my ACT scores still are delayed because I just took the test in October, because it kept getting canceled. So it's hard to apply to college, it's hard to know where I even want to go because it's hard to imagine even being back on campus or in a school anytime in the future,” Pavek said.

For now Pavek and Lindstrom are waiting to see if they will be able to return to school in-person any time soon and get back to some sense of normalcy.

When spring rolls around and it’s time for the seniors to receive their diplomas they’re looking forward to celebrating their hard work with a parade, virtual or drive up ceremony, but are hopeful that their commencement will take place the traditional way by turning their tassels next to their classmates.

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