County high school seniors positive despite loss of senior year finale

The hallways and classrooms are deserted. The gymnasiums and cafeterias are silent. The school buses are empty. For youngsters of the 1980s, it seems like the world of the movie “Red Dawn” has come true.

It’s not true, of course, but for the first time in modern history, life at schools in San Juan County has come to a complete standstill due to the COVID-19 coronavirus that began in China in late 2019 and made its way into the U.S. early this year.

And it’s now official following an April 14 announcement from Utah Governor Gary Herbert that the 2019-2020 school year is finished, at least as far as attending school is concerned.

For elementary students through high school juniors and – let’s be honest – their parents, it’s a sad thing. But for high school seniors it’s devastating. There will be no prom for many, no senior trip, no play, no spring sports, no state competitions, and no graduation ceremony.

I spoke with nine seniors from Monticello, Monument Valley, San Juan, and Whitehorse high schools. All of them said the worst part of the state social distancing order is that they won’t see their friends and teachers for the rest of the year.

Though some may get back together when and if the order is lifted, most of the seniors will move on with their lives after graduation without getting that opportunity. It all happened so suddenly they didn’t even have a chance to properly say goodbye.

Monticello High School (MHS) senior Maddy Freestone said, “Everyone has an expectation of how high school life is supposed to end. It’s the last few months you get with your friends before everyone moves away. It’s really sad that it’s not going the way we all expected it to.”

Freestone was the student director of the “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” production the MHS drama team was working on before school – and the performance – was cancelled. She earned Drama and Vocal Performance Runner-up honors in the 2019-20 Sterling Scholar competition, but said it wasn’t the same online.

Even though our world has become increasingly virtual in recent years, it’s not a very exciting prospect for seniors who want to finish their high school years with a bang.

Just about everything takes place in the virtual world for them now – classes, schoolwork, counseling, and interaction with friends. The students all expressed that it’s much more difficult.

“Online classes feel
very optional and they’re not,” said San Juan High School (SJHS) senior Jalynn Swenson.

Freestone echoed that sentiment, saying she’s struggling to stay motivated when she’s not actually in class.

“It’s hard from home,” said SJHS senior Shaw Nielson. “It’s hard to learn new things without being face to face with my teachers.”

Students in the southern reaches of the county face even more challenges in the wake of the new coronavirus. While most north-county students have reliable internet connections, that’s not always the case in the south.

Monument Valley High School (MVHS) Student Body President Karrilyn Yellowhair reports difficulties getting both high school and college assignments in on time. “I live in the middle of nowhere and sometimes when the weather gets bad the internet goes off,” she explained.

COVID-19 has also exacerbated the isolation of south-county students. “We live so far apart from each other, some of the families here were already quarantined,” explained Whitehorse High School (WHS) Senior Class President Kaia Jay. “Now the pandemic has added fear and worry.”

Though all the seniors are disappointed their high school career isn’t ending as they envisioned, they are all trying to maintain positive attitudes. MHS senior Dillon Slack said, “You just have to move on with your life.”

Slack, Nielson, and MHS Student Body President Hyrum Johnson all report they are staying busy by working more hours at their jobs than they would have if school was still in session. Other students are trying to stay busy in a variety of ways.

Téa Scott, WHS Senior Class Vice President, said her family has gotten into baking. She also spends time walking and playing basketball at home.

Until the softball season was completely cancelled, Swenson was hitting balls off a tee every day.

Living with the challenges of no running water or electricity keeps WHS Senior Class President Nishonii Holiday busy. All the students said they have plenty of schoolwork to keep them busy, and most of them are still preparing for college also.

Slack is planning on attending either Utah Valley University or Southern Utah University in the fall. He has received the SUU Dean Scholarship and was a runner-up in the Sterling Scholar mathematics competition.

Freestone plans to attend Utah State University in Blanding for a year and hopes to enter the radiology field. Yellowhair was accepted to Brigham Young University and will start there in the fall.

Holiday said she plans to major in biology at Fort Lewis College in Durango, CO. Nielson will study business at Dixie State and try to walk on to the football team. Swenson is headed to Utah State University after graduation and plans to try out for the softball team.

Sterling Scholar Science Runner-up Jay will enter the pre-med program at the University of Utah. She is likely the most isolated of all the seniors I spoke with since she underwent surgery prior to state social distancing orders and hasn’t been in class since February.

And Scott plans to work during the summer to gear up for college and being away from home. She’ll study communications with an emphasis in journalism at the University of Utah.

Johnson said he will go straight into a career in farming and after a couple years he’ll know if it’s for him. He said he’ll pursue an HVAC degree in case he’s not cracked up for the challenge of living off the land.

These seniors are definitely moving forward, but they have lost so much at a crucial point of their lives. As Johnson said, “We had so many plans that were just snapped from existence by this virus.”

Those plans include not only the previously-mentioned dances, trips, ceremonies, sports, state competitions, and plays, but also choir and band performances, student government work and projects, graduation receptions, farewell videos and assemblies, research projects and conferences, senior projects and banquets, and even a mock crash to teach students why they shouldn’t engage in distracted driving.

Most importantly, the high school seniors of 2020 will no longer benefit from face-to-face interaction with teachers, counselors, and fellow students at the high school level.

“It feels like life has just stopped,” said Swenson.

“Senior year was supposed to be so exciting,” Freestone lamented. “It’s the end of your high school life, and it’s just really hard to not be able to do all the things I love.”

“To not be able to see friends you’ve been with for ten years or more and to not graduate with them is just devastating,” said Nielson.

The COVID-19 pandemic is without a doubt the most devastating crisis to hit the United States in our lifetime. Everyone has been affected, some in more severe ways than others.

Though high school seniors have lost – to this point in their lives – the most important experiences of their lives, they are reacting nobly, remaining positive in the face of adversity.

“Even though our senior year hasn’t ended the way we hoped,” said Jay, “now we look forward to the future. I’m excited to see where each senior goes.”

“There always will be a positive in every situation,” reasoned Johnson. “You can always think of things to make your day brighter and, those around you, their day brighter as well.”

We would all do well to heed that advice from the future high school graduates of San Juan County.

San Juan Record

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