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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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How the class of 2023 is leaving COVID behind and having their first normal high school year

By Jordon Tolley-Turner For The Spokesman-Review

As fall takes hold, a familiar sight can be seen at Spokane’s high schools: the hustle and bustle of the crowded hallways as new freshmen find their way while the sophomores and juniors go about their business.

But there’s another group of students who sense something more: the seniors who after years of hard work and dedication look to graduate in June.

“It doesn’t feel real yet, but it is really exciting,” said Shadle Park High School senior Dylan Kakuda.

And for Spokane’s graduating class of 2023, this year is also different in another aspect – normalcy.

“Looking back on my freshman year, I never could have imagined how COVID could have changed my high school life,” said Shadle Park High School senior Evie Patel.

It was nearly three years ago, in March 2020, when the then-freshmen first heard of COVID-19 and were sent home with the expectation they’d return three weeks later following an extended spring break of sorts.

That would soon change.

“My first thought when school closed was ‘this is temporary,’ and then it wasn’t,” said Shadle Park High School senior Grace Schuck.

“I was really just excited to have a few weeks off, but then weeks turned to months and then almost a whole other year of school,” said North Central High School senior Christian Leonard.

By September 2020, the world had relatively adapted to COVID-19, but school taught online brought a new set of challenges to these then-sophomores, who were experiencing virtual lessons and trying to shift how they learned.

“I felt it was just hard to learn by looking at a screen,” Kakuda said.

Usually the students would wake up and join the virtual classes for a few hours each morning, then most assignments were to be done later in the day and turned in via Microsoft Teams.

Many students felt detached from their schoolwork as technological and communication problems surfaced. And they were detached from the normal activities of high school social life.

“I had no motivation and no one else did either,” Leonard said.

Others faced very specific challenges.

“I live rurally and my satellite Wi-Fi wasn’t strong enough to support streaming videos or Zoom, so my family purchased Wi-Fi for my great-grandmother’s house and I went there every day,” said North Central High School senior Dakota Flaget.

But there were also the mental challenges as students spent more time alone and in their rooms, with the social aspect of school no longer available.

“During the pandemic, I was stuck inside all day long for school and then found that I had no motivation to go out and do anything else, and especially without that social aspect of school, I felt alone,” Patel said.

Eventually the students returned to school every other day with a mask on and social -distancing efforts in place, nearly a year after they first left.

For some, the change was a light among the darkness.

“I actually enjoyed the schedule quite a bit,” said North Central High School senior Jesse Leach. “It was nice to be able to see my friends every other day compared to nothing while completely online.”

And for others, it wasn’t quite right.

“I felt even more isolated than while working from home,” Schuck said. “It was very hard to finally be around people but not have the luxury of really connecting.”

When their junior year arrived in September 2021, school was back to its full-time in-person schedule. But COVID-19 would still prove to be a major factor: Masks were required. Rivalry games suspended. Dances canceled. And there was the lingering sense of social and academic recovery from the year before.

“At first it was super weird being back at school after so long,” Leonard said. “It was hard to be social after so long of just talking to people on Xbox parties. … It hurt junior year a bit for me.”

“I had to retrain my brain to go to class, focus and do my work,” Patel said. “It took me a while to get my drive to learn back.”

Yet the class of 2023 is finally in for a regular school year.

The students have mixed outlooks on the sacrifices it took during the past three years to get here – to feel as if precious time was taken from them, or to simply go with the flow.

“I felt robbed … but I can’t control the world so I’ve had to teach myself the ‘It is what it is’ mentality,” Schuck said.

Nonetheless, there is a sense of unity among classmates in the experience, and wanting to be involved as much as possible while they still can to make their senior year special.

“I actually learned not to pass up on fun opportunities because I now understand that it isn’t necessarily guaranteed this won’t happen again,” Flaget said. “And you only live once.”

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