Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Class of COVID-19: This year’s graduating class started high school in lockdown. Here are their stories

At the end of the Ridgeline High School commencement ceremony, seniors toss their caps in celebration, Saturday, June, 10 2023, in the McCarthey Athletic Center. The students were the first graduating class from the new high school in the Spokane Valley.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Hallye Matherly woke up early the morning of her first day of freshman year at Ferris High School.

She rolled out of bed, brushed her teeth and got dressed . Then the first-day-of-school jitters kicked in.

“I remember I called my best friend at that point, and I was just like, ‘I’m so scared, like, are you in class?’ ” she recalled.

Nervous, she made her way to school. Or rather, to her school-issued laptop, on which she signed into a Zoom meeting of her class, greeted by dozens of little black boxes on her computer screen.

Matherly’s first-day-of-high-school memory juxtaposes the traditional tale of crossing the threshold to a daunting new building, but it’s not unique among her class. Members of the Class of 2024 were in eighth grade when an unknown pneumonia-like illness began spreading in Wuhan, China. At the end of February that school year, the first person in the United States died by the virus. By March, schools announced they were closing for two weeks to mitigate the spread.

“They went on the intercom and said that there was going to be a two-week shutdown, and I could hear the cheers emanating from every single room in the entire school,” Ferris senior Dylan Kolts said.

The two-week closure became six, then the rest of the school year and that became the beginning of their freshman year, when students collectively but separately logged onto their school-issued laptops to mark their first day of high school.

“ ‘How long are we going to be stuck here?’ ” Ferris High School senior Isaac Woods recalls thinking. “I missed leaving my house and seeing my friends and ended up just not really interacting with anybody that often.”

The awkwardness was difficult for students. Already, they braced for entering a new era of life, navigating more rigorous classes in a strange school filled with hundreds of new faces. The pandemic obscured these new faces for a whole class of students, relegating them to a screen full of black boxes in a virtual classroom.

“No one was wanting to interact or be social in any sort of way, and there was just a struggle for everyone to stay in it because it was just so different from what we had traditionally been doing; especially as a freshman, it just did not feel right. I was like, ‘Is this what high school is going to be like for the rest of my four years?’ ” said Kauã Roberton, senior at Lewis and Clark High School.

It wasn’t. Most schools shifted midyear to a hybrid virtual/in-person model in which students did some schooling online and came to classrooms for a shorter schedule with fewer peers.

Regardless, the semester spent in their rooms, behind their computer screens shaped this class’ entry to high school, forcing them to miss milestones like their homecoming dance or first football game. Many seniors said distance learning caused a lag in their academic and social development, but they feel they’ve caught up as they cross the graduation stage next week.

“I feel like it took me till my junior year to actually have a high school year,” Kolts said.

He didn’t see a person outside of his family for a full calendar year during the height of the pandemic, when his parents followed quarantine and social -distancing protocols. He recalls sneaking away from his parents at a park to spend a moment with his then girlfriend.

“It kind of felt like I was really isolated,” he said. “I just sat at my house and played video games.”

Without having sports as an avenue to meet peers, Woods said he didn’t make any friends his freshman year, just kept in loose contact with his circle from eighth grade. As soon as football, track and wrestling started up again and school returned to the physical realm, he found his people.

“It affected all of us kind of in the same way where we lost a lot of connections, but when we came back, we made different connections with people,” he said.

Watching current-day freshmen live out their high school milestones COVID-free, Matherly can’t help but be jealous. She’ll never experience matriculation from eighth grade, her freshman homecoming dance and football games as a freshman.

“It was a pretty big milestone, going into high school that we kind of missed completely and didn’t get to take it in, like, ‘Oh, we’re about to be high schoolers, can you believe it?’ ” Matherly said. “It was no school for a couple weeks and then boom, we’re freshmen.”

The effects weren’t just social. Matherly “almost failed” her freshman year. The adjustment to a high school course load, acclimating to new technology and being in an unsuitable learning environment made online school a difficult task.

“Just being able to be at home and be in my own room, I can just lay in bed and sleep if I wanted and just kind of do what I want,” Matherly said. “I just felt like I was at home. I didn’t feel like I was in the learning mindset that I would usually be in at school.”

Grading standards changed during online school. It was unmotivating for Ferris’ Nolan Matheney, and the lack of drive transferred to his in-person experience, he said.

Matheney said if his freshman year was in person, he would have been better at algebra. He is now taking calculus, but he feels like he lacks a basic skill he needs after his freshman year online.

Ferris senior Aidan Ackerman is in the same boat as Matheney. Ackerman said if he had gone to in-person school freshman year, he would have been better at math and English.

He remembered not paying attention to video calls, even when teachers urged involvement.

“They made a big point that you have to stay and participate, but a lot of people didn’t,” he said.

Turning her camera on to a class full of strangers “terrified” Matherly, she said.

“They wanted us to turn on our cameras, and I refused because I don’t know any of these people, I don’t want them to see me,” she said.

Ferris senior Brendan Washington said COVID kept him from bonding with his teachers compared to an in-person experience.

“They aren’t as strong as they are now,” Washington said. “It’s definitely hard to build relationships with teachers from a distance.”

A 4.0 student prepandemic, Kolts’ grades fell during distance learning. Diagnosed with ADHD, it was hard for him to focus on his studies while at home.

With the help of extra attentive teachers when students returned to in-person learning, Kolts doesn’t feel he lost too much learning in online school.

“Band during freshman year was the worst year event ever, and I think every senior can agree on that,” said Roberton, a saxophone player.

During online learning, he recorded himself playing on his school-issued laptop and sent the poor-quality audio to his band teacher. He missed playing with other musicians, lacking the camaraderie in presenting a piece of music together.

“It was really frustrating because we couldn’t play with other people or see how we sounded in a group setting,” he said.

Despite the atypical start to his high school career, Roberton isn’t graduating by mourning the freshman year he didn’t have. He doesn’t feel stunted, socially or academically, and when he begins his freshman year at the University of Washington studying music, he’ll recall the tenacity required to keep playing his saxophone alone in his room into a low-quality recording on his laptop in lieu of band class.

“It’s really important to stick to those things that you are interested in and that you think you’ll excel in, because I don’t see a future in which I wouldn’t be playing music now,” Roberton said. “During freshman year, band and music was really unmotivating and discouraging, and I’m glad that even though that was the case, I was able to continue. … I just say, stick with your passions, even if they seem like they’re going through a rough spot at the time.”

Intern reporter Alexandria Osborne contributed to this article.