Senior night. Homecoming. Prom. Graduation.
Teenagers circle these days on their calendars the moment they enter high school. Whether it’s from movies, elder siblings or upperclassmen, they are told these events matter in a young person’s life.
“High school is very romanticized,” Ridgefield volleyball senior Alicia Andrew said.
For local students, the most hyped moments of high school are currently penciled-in, eraser marks still fresh on past months’ pages. Will they get to play their sport again? Will they be able to attend a football game decked out in school colors? Will they get to wear a fancy dress or dapper bow tie at prom?
“I think for everyone it’s starting to set in that we might not actually get anything this year,” Andrew said.
High school sports, along with in-person learning, has yet to resume for area schools due to the coronavirus pandemic. What was once said to be a weekslong hiatus in March is nearing a yearlong absence.
Students across the county are grappling with what that means for the upcoming months. Coaches, parents and administrators, worried for teenagers’ mental health, urge officials to find a way to return to sports and activities safely. Local leagues announced Thursday that low-risk sports such as cross country, tennis and golf will return Feb. 1. Moderate- and high-risk sports still need COVID-19 metrics to improve for a return to competition.
“High school has all of these different avenues kids can be involved in,” Mountain View athletic director Adam Mathieson said. “When kids don’t have access to that, there’s a part of them missing.”
For Ridgefield senior football player Luke Price, the uncertainty looming over high school football since spring practices were postponed in May diminished his desire to play.
“I had to change my goals and aspirations with football,” Price said. “It sucked the juice out of me.”
Price, who started playing football as a sophomore at Seton Catholic, hoped of competing in college at a small Division II or III school, he said. With fall football postponed and no concrete start date in sight, Price now plans on getting a manual labor job out of high school.
“Kids missing out on this affects them mentally more than people realize,” he said.
Administrators and coaches see the changes in their students and athletes, too. The most obvious sign: grades are down. The report card is the first indicator if a kid is struggling, administrators agreed.
When a 4.0 student suddenly has Ds and Fs, something is wrong, Fort Vancouver girls basketball coach Arlisa Hinton said.
While Hinton has always monitored her athletes’ well-being and mental state, it’s more difficult to do remotely. She can’t read body language or emotion on a video call, but still tries to check in weekly with her team.
When the team was allowed to practice in pods — before a Nov. 16 order from Gov. Jay Inslee’s office halted indoor practices — she saw the difference for her girls. They were smiling and happy, eager to reconnect with teammates.
“This is proof to anyone who doesn’t believe these types of activities aren’t important,” Hinton said.
Sports and other activities like band, drama and debate are often a motivator for kids to attend class and boost their grades, Prairie football coach Mike Peck said.
Peck and Mathieson, a fellow 3A Greater St. Helens League football coach, saw increased turnout when they were permitted to have workouts in pods of limited numbers over a roughly monthlong span in the fall.
“All kids want a sense of belonging,” Mathieson said.
Mathieson and Peck both said they give each coach a group of kids they’re responsible for checking in with. Adult involvement in students’ lives is important during a time where many kids are dealing with feelings of isolation and a sense that they’re missing out on the high school experience, they said.
“But to be honest, on a personal note, we fail,” Mathieson said. Daily, he gets calls from parents telling him their son or daughter is struggling.
Often, coaches and administrators rely on students to lift each other up. Leaders, even those who once considered themselves the quiet type, have emerged.
Fort Vancouver basketball senior Kailey Gonzalez didn’t think the isolation of the pandemic would impact her.
“I’m actually very anti-social,” Gonzalez said. “But it’s greatly affected me.”
Gonzalez reaches out to teammates frequently to check in. She hoped to play college basketball, but has had fewer opportunities than expected since she’s been unable to take the court in front of college coaches.
For Andrew, who has signed to play volleyball for Baylor University next season, she’s grateful for an opportunity to continue her sporting career. She knows not everyone is afforded the same chance. Still, the time without volleyball is taxing. Sports are Andrew’s outlet, a way to get away from schoolwork and other responsibilities and just be part of a community.
“This summer was when I was most upset and mentally drained,” she said. “It really hit me: How long is this going to last?”
Andrew’s connection to the community is now bigger than sports. As part of the school’s Student Health Committee, Andrew and a team of Ridgefield students are creating a website to help students find resources to combat mental-health struggles.
With the announcement of sports returning to competition in February, there’s again hope high school sports can lift spirits.
“COVID-19 is real. It’s serious. But we also need to find a way to keep students mentally healthy,” Peck said. “Whether it’s sports or activities, they need to be part of something bigger than themselves. We need to find a way to do it safely.”