Mountain View High School senior Diego Inzunza has played trombone with his school band since fifth grade. In his freshman and sophomore years, he watched upperclass leaders proudly carry the band’s banner and conduct special performances, attend music festivals and organize student socials. He eagerly awaited his turn to contribute.
When Inzunza heard the historic news that Clark County schools would close due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he was taking an exam in history class — an irony that struck him at the time, even as he attempted to take in what that meant for him personally. He remembers it as a very difficult, emotional day, full of long hugs and last goodbyes.
At home, Inzunza’s parents, both of whom work in the restaurant business, scrambled to cope with pandemic-related loss of income. Meanwhile, Inzunza found it difficult to focus during Zoom classes and struggled to complete online assignments. He became increasingly anxious and said he sometimes couldn’t see the screen in front of him. To help his family makes ends meet, he found a job at Sonic Drive-In.
“I had to kind of early in the quarantine pull up my pants and grow up a lot more than I would have had to regularly,” Inzunza said.
Last year’s graduating class experienced the shock of a sudden exit from school — everything just ended, no period at the end of the sentence. Inzunza and the rest of this year’s high school seniors have lived in the shadow of a huge question mark. Everything became a maybe. As they missed one milestone after another in the midst of uncertainty, however, some students discovered a resilience that transformed crisis into opportunity.
“Every senior in previous years kind of knew going in what to expect. There’s a degree of security in that predictability,” said Mark Gardner, an English teacher at Hayes Freedom High School in Camas who administers senior projects. “When you’re getting into a massive life transition, the more that can be predictable, the better off you are. For this year’s seniors, predictability is out the window. All the things that used to be the constants are now the variables. On top of that, they’re stepping into the next phase of life.”
When schools closed to in-person learning last spring, most high school juniors expected to return to school in the fall and have a normal senior year: football games, senior trips, parties, proms and graduation ceremonies with friends and family. Instead, they struggled with months of online learning, social isolation and cancellation of milestone events, never knowing how long this strange limbo would last.
“I guess you could say it was like a marathon,” said Owen Lazaro-Colin, a senior at Hudson’s Bay High School. “You’re just running to reach your goal. You can get tired, but if you find your hidden energy, your strength that you have deep inside, you can go farther than your limits. … If there are three words to describe the past year, it’s ‘push your limits.’ ”
Lazaro-Colin thought remote school would be relatively easy, but day after day of staring at a laptop screen in isolation from peers and teachers sapped his motivation. His home life offered its own disruptions. To earn extra money, Lazaro-Colin’s father brought him to work on school days. When Lazaro-Colin wasn’t working, he was hanging out with friends who didn’t encourage academic pursuits. By the first semester of the 2020-’21 school year, Lazaro-Colin was failing. Depression set in. There was nothing connecting him to school, no extracurricular activities and none of the usual senior perks to look forward to. Logging into classroom Zoom meetings seemed pointless and a high school diploma seemed more and more unlikely.
“Those milestones are the things that keep the tenuous kids connected. If they don’t have those milestones to look forward to, it’s hard to get them to read this book or annotate this poem,” Gardner said. “With seniors, all these things that would have coaxed them along haven’t been in place.”
Bobbi Arnold, career guidance specialist at Evergreen High School, also noticed her students were sliding toward disengagement.
“Kids have been dealing with uncertainty but they’ve also been dealing with the isolation of doing school without their friends and without their support systems, except for remotely,” Arnold said. “All the while, they’re grieving and not getting to do the normal kinds of things they would be doing their senior year.”
Many seniors, like Inzunza and Lazaro-Colin, went to work.
“I think there’s a lot more seniors that are graduating with work experience that they wouldn’t have had,” Gardner said. “That has been a challenge for us: To get that cash in the pocket makes it more difficult for them to do that history assignment. That cash in the pocket has the immediate sense of, ‘I’m an adult now.’ … When we were full remote, I’d have kids working nights stocking shelves and they’d turn their stuff in at 3 in the morning.”
For some seniors, at-home school has been a boon. Some stayed fully remote even when they had the option of in-person classes because the flexibility allowed them to continue working, Gardner said. He also said that, without the distractions and stresses of in-person school, some students were able to produce more thoughtful, thorough work.
At Evergreen High School, Arnold said she was excited that more seniors were able to participate in events like virtual career fairs that they’d never have been able to attend in person because of travel expenses. Both Gardner and Arnold said that student success this last year has been dependent on a multitude of individual factors and circumstances.
“Some students have learned to be more independent and be on their own because they are the person who is in charge of getting it done. Then there are others who are barely scraping by because they struggle without the support of their peers and their teachers in person,” Arnold said, noting that many students live in multigenerational households and feel a responsibility to support their families.
For students who have a more chaotic home life, the schedule and structure of in-class learning makes it easier to focus, Arnold said. “You really can’t assume what a student or family might be going through because it’s impacted everybody in different ways.”
After Lazaro-Colin had a heart-to-heart conversation with his father, he realized that he what he truly wanted was a career that fit his interests: fashion design and video production. He moved in with his mom and brother, who helped him focus on his studies.
As soon as a hybrid of remote and in-person learning became available, he returned to school and found that it was easier to complete assignments in the company of teachers and peers. He used the hours outside of school to build his design portfolio.
“I realized during the pandemic that I want to do something after graduation,” Lazaro-Colin said. “I had to get myself together. COVID opened my eyes and made me realize it’s a great opportunity for you to accomplish your goals because you have so much free time after school. Why don’t I just do what I love and explore through it? So that’s exactly what I did. It also made my days more enjoyable and I can use these skills in my future.”
An attentive teacher recommended Lazaro-Colin for the Vancouver Public Schools Game Time internship, where he learned video production while covering school sports. For Lazaro-Colin, the internship changed everything. It connected him to the school community and gave him the support of administrators and new friendships with crew members, as well as introducing him to industry professionals. He’s now earning straight As and has been accepted to Washington State University Vancouver, though he’s also considering Clark College.
“I can at least say that I did something I really enjoy and was passionate about — the internship and video production,” Lazaro-Colin said. “That, for me, kind of fills in the senior experience. I’m really lucky as a senior I get to do something to replace the senior prom. This is good enough for me.”
Although Inzunza was able to quit work when school resumed in the fall, he still had trouble concentrating and absences began piling up.
In March, Inzunza was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which he said was “a shock” but helped him understand why remote learning was such a challenge.
Things improved as soon as he was able to return to in-person classes. He put all of his energy into his role as drum major, an elected leadership position which allowed him to plan events for music students, organize a hygiene-product drive for the Clark County Food Bank and lead the pep band when football games were reinstated.
He was sad about canceled events but motivated to “make this the best year that I could for all the students in the instrumental program.”
He said that the pandemic gave him experiences, such as speaking at Black Lives Matter rallies, that he was able to leverage into compelling college application essays.
“Senior year was not a year that I wanted to live in regret,” said Inzunza, who’s been accepted to Hamilton College in New York through the QuestBridge Scholarship Program. “Senior year was not a year that I wanted to be dictated by a situation that was out of my control. It is valid for me and my classmates to think of this year as the worst. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through, but I didn’t want to be the kind of person who let that dictate how that was going to affect the rest of my life.”
Inzunza and Lazaro-Colin have never met, but they would likely agree that the lessons learned during the pandemic shaped their character in ways that will fundamentally shape their futures.
“The pandemic makes you realize that you can either do nothing or either you get up and change that,” Lazaro-Colin said. “Nobody’s going to do it for you. It’s all about you. It’s always all about you doing it.”