Chris Mays and Susan Smallheer
For Jonah Bingham, a senior at Brattleboro Union High School, the strangest part of school this year wasn’t wearing masks.
“I think the biggest thing for me was the reduced number of kids. It just didn’t feel like high school normally felt,” Bingham said. “You walk through the halls and it’s just like, empty during the passing period, which is totally different from anything I’d experienced before.
“It just wasn’t school. You go in and interact with your teachers, which is helpful, but it wasn’t the same,” he said. “The school spirit is way down.”
This year, the region’s schools used a mixture of online and in-person learning methods, greatly reducing the number of people in the buildings, and continuing much of the social isolation inflicted by the COVID pandemic. But with vaccinations underway for months, the class of 2021 saw restrictions ease as the school year progressed, and will experience some rites of passage the class of 2020 missed out on.
Bingham, 18, noted that his school was able to plan an outdoor prom, as well as an in-person graduation event. He received his second vaccination against COVID-19 late last month.
“The school community has done a great job of rallying behind us and getting us to the closest to normal we can be,” he said.
His classmate Miles Anton, 17, took early college classes this year through a partnership between the high school and Community College of Vermont, and did not spend any time in the high school building.
Normally, he said he would have played intramural basketball and attended other sports games.
“It’s definitely been an isolating year for a lot of people,” he said.
Anton will double major in political science and creative writing at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Bingham will study media production at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida.
Sadie Boyd, a senior at Twin Valley Middle High School in Whitingham, estimated spending as much as six hours a day on the computer for school.
“I think some of it was a bummer but it’s the best we could do,” she said.
Boyd had taken one class at the high school during the first semester then remote classes at Community College of Vermont in the second semester.
The biggest impact for her had to do with restrictions on the way sports were held this year. Still, athletics allowed her to spend time with her friends nearly every day. She played soccer and basketball, and now she’s in softball.
Her class also wasn’t able to compete in a soccer game against all the teachers as part of the annual prep rally tradition at the beginning of the school year. Instead, the whole school was invited to celebrate the seniors in a Zoom meeting.
Now, Boyd is looking forward to the end-of-year festivities. She said her class got the go-ahead for prom and graduation in early May.
“And that was, all year, the two things I was really concerned about,” she said, noting that last year’s seniors didn’t get to have their prom.
Boyd is helping plan the two events.
“Masks will definitely be required, which honestly I don’t mind,” she said. “I don’t care what we have to do as long as we can have a prom and it won’t be too hung up with COVID and all the factors that go with that.”
Boyd will be attending New England Institute of Technology in Rhode Island, where she’ll study physical therapy. During her long search for a college, she looked within a three-hour radius because she wanted to stay close to Vermont.
At first, she wondered if she should take a year off due to COVID restrictions. She said she “didn’t want to sit in a dorm room forever.”
“But I’m glad it’s looking up,” she said.
Her classmate Kylie Reed said she feels like life is getting closer to a semblance of normal. She’s the class president and involved in preparing for end-of-year festivities.
“We’re starting to get toward the end of the year and the restrictions are kind of going away or being lifted,” she said. “We’re starting to plan prom and graduation, so that’s exciting.”
This school year, Reed took one class at Twin Valley and four at Community College of Vermont. For the first semester at Twin Valley, she said, “You would go in and you would get screened and everything.”
Wednesdays were reserved for remote learning and deep cleans of school buildings. Reed also took two classes remotely at Community College of Vermont.
During the second semester, Reed had no classes at Twin Valley. She ended up taking two more classes at Community College of Vermont from home.
Playing soccer and basketball provided most of her socialization for the year. She also spent time with classmates outside of school.
“It’s definitely been different,” she said, “but everyone’s going through the same thing.”
Her plan is to attend Russell Sage College in Troy, N.Y. with the goal of becoming a pediatric occupational therapist.
“I really like working with kids,” she said. “I’ve done a lot of community service throughout high school that made me realize that.”
Reed said she “shadowed” at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington and other places. She said she found occupational therapy “really interesting,” and seeing programs during college tours only reassured her that’s the right path for her.
In Hinsdale, N.H., four seniors set to graduate on June 12 all said they are excited for the next stage in their lives.
“I’m going to take a year off and work as a licensed nursing assistant,” Megan Kemp said during an online video call with the Reformer.
“I’ve already put in a deposit for Bradley University in Illinois,” said Sophia Miller, who plans to major in public relations and communications.
“I’m going to train to be an underwater welder,” said Travis Sweetser, who, while attending school, has also been working this past year at J & J Trailers and Truck Equipment in Winchester.
Sweetser, Miller and Kemp were on the same video call. A fourth senior, Samuel Bousquet, participated in a separate video call.
“I’ve been accepted to Westfield State University where I’m going to study for social work,” Bousquet said.
Bousquet moved to Hinsdale two years ago and has been living with his aunt and uncle, Melinda and Todd Bousquet.
“I’ve been in foster care since I was little,” Bousquet said, which is why he wants to go into social work. “I want to help those who might have been in the same circumstances growing up.”
Kemp, Miller and Sweetser all grew up in Hinsdale.
“We’re all lifers,” said Sweetser, who hopes to learn underwater welding in Seattle or in New Jersey. “We’ve known each other since kindergarten.”
All four students said there have been challenges, but for most of them, it was hard to motivate themselves last year, when learning was all remote.
“I’m usually honor roll,” Sweetser said. “But not the last quarter [of 2020].”
Then, when they returned to the classroom, it was hard “to get into the swing of things,” Kemp said.
“I have a bit of a time management issue,” she said.
“Once I was at home, school got put on the back burner and I got distracted,” said Miller, who helped her mom, who was working from home, with her younger sister’s child care. “I had a lot of responsibilities watching her, so school priorities got pushed to the side. I fell behind on schoolwork, but I spent more time taking care of myself, emotionally and mentally. I grew up a lot.”
All three said the teachers and administrators at the high school understood the challenges and rallied to support all the students, and not just the seniors.
The students thanked Sarah Burgess, Sarah Greene, Jodie Holmquist, Eloise Michael and Alexa Keough for their support, both during remote learning and when in-person was resumed.
“They were all very understanding and available when we needed help,” said Kemp.
“I want to say thank you to the teachers,” Miller said. “They put so much effort into whatever they do.”
This summer, Miller will be a camp counselor at Camp W in Brattleboro; Kemp will be going to school to train as an LNA when she’s not tending her garden; Sweetser will be going full time at the trailer shop; and Bousquet will be “taking it easy,” as he gets ready to head to college.
“I’m looking forward to dorm life,” Bousquet said. “I’m nervous, but excited at the same time.”
Miller said she is looking forward to attending prom and having a normal graduation ceremony, both of which were denied to last year’s seniors due to the uncertainty of COVID-19.
Last year, graduation was held at the Northfield Drive-in and required social distancing and masks. This year, graduation will be held outdoors at the high school, though there will be some COVID-19 safety measures.
Emma Graham, 17, a senior at Bellows Falls Union High School, said she is grateful to be having a prom, a graduation event and having had a spring sports season, but echoed the sentiment that the biggest challenge of the past year was a loss of day-to-day interaction.
“In hindsight, I would argue that COVID taught us not to take anything for granted and to be grateful for every day spent in school with our teachers and friends, and cherish the sliver of normalcy we are finally beginning to feel,” she said.
Graham, the senior class president, will be attending the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she will study education.
“I look forward to continuing my education in a field of study that interests me and I have hopes of being a high school teacher one day,” she said.
Her classmate Molly Hodsden, 18, the senior class valedictorian, said the year has been better than she expected.
“I enjoyed the gradual transition from the hybrid schedule for the first half of the year to a mostly normal conclusion of the school year,” she said. “My greatest challenge definitely involved dealing with the stress on my mental health while juggling the numerous responsibilities I already possessed.”
She noted that the adjustment from social isolation and smaller course loads presented a challenge.
“I definitely found myself and my friends suffering from a lack of motivation at times and forcing ourselves to tackle the various duties left to seniors,” she said.
She said she was disappointed with restrictions on spectators at sports events during the fall and winter.
“As the captain of a State Championship winning cross-country team this year, I know my fellow runners were sad that we couldn’t have any of our supporters attend,” she said.
Hodsden will attend Northeastern University in Boston, where she will study civil engineering and architectural studies.
Leland & Gray
Abbie Hazelton, a senior at Leland and Gray Union Middle & High School in Townshend, said she missed having spectators at theater productions.
“I have loved performing and being on stage since elementary school. I have been in many amazing shows and I couldn’t wait until I was a senior and got recognized for my last musical,” she said. “I was devastated when my senior year finally came around and we were unable to do theatre like we had in the past. Although we were still able to do a show this year, we couldn’t perform in front of an audience so it wasn’t the way I wished I could have ended my theatre experience at Leland and Gray.”
Still, she was grateful to see her friends again this year, noting there were some whom she hadn’t seen in person since March 2020, and said the teachers “are doing an incredible job making the school environment as welcoming and safe as possible.”
Her classmate Matthew Emerson said he is passionate about spending time with people he cares about, whether through playing a sport, an extracurricular activity or just hanging out.
“COVID-19 made this very difficult to achieve due to the social distancing,” he said. “I wasn’t able to play sports the same way I had played them my whole life, since I had to stay socially distanced, in addition to the shortened seasons.”
While challenging, he said he believes the school administration and the state “made it the best they could for the athletes.”
“Soccer had limited fans and basketball had no fans,” he recalled. “I definitely missed playing in a game and having fans cheer me on.”
For baseball, he said it was “almost as normal as it could be.” While there were still masks and social distancing, the season was not cut short, and fans were allowed to attend.
Hazelton will study exercise science at the University of Vermont, and Emerson will study engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.