Seniors face challenges, share hope in 2021

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By ANTHONY FLORES

Veronika Hyska spent the first six weeks of her senior year at home. She was a remote learner. When she returned to campus, things felt different.

“A lot of things have changed education-wise, like with teaching styles. I was remote my first six weeks, and it was hard to keep up,” she said. “I managed, but it was difficult. When I came back in person, everything seemed disorganized. Not to say that in a bad way, but you could see that the teachers were having a rough time adjusting just like the students.”

Like Hyska, the rest of the Class of 2021 has been affected in dozens of ways by the pandemic. Forced to wade through uncharted waters, this class will stand uniquely apart from other seniors.

While the class persevered through the year of twists and turns, the effect of such a stressful situation still takes its toll on students. Haley Polser believed optimistically that by spring, the state of things would be much better.

“It’s not that way, and it’s been hard to stay positive and look forward to things. So much is unknown still, especially in January and February when things seemed to keep declining,” said Polser. “We’ve had some hope in the last months with the vaccine, but it hasn’t been easy, especially not seeing friends and teachers that you’ve known for such a long time.”

In-class at home
The most jarring adjustment that students across the district dealt with was the pivot to online and digital-centered learning.

“There was a lot of self-reliance,” Hyska said. “You had to get yourself to be motivated and sit down and do your classes instead of being forced to go to school. That was the big hurdle to get over at first.”

Abigail Janicek, a member of the soccer team, took the time management she’s learned on the pitch and applied it to her remote learning experience.

“I made a schedule for myself. I would wake up at the same time every day and do a certain class for some time and then the next one,” said Janicek. “With the leftover time, if I had any other work I needed to do, I would do it then. Making a schedule and having good time management skills worked really well for me.”

For those who didn’t remote learn and were on campus from day one, the atmosphere created questions of whether it was worth even being there.

“Not being able to see anyone made me not want to be here,” said Anissa Garza. “I came at the beginning of the year, and towards November, I was like, ‘everyone’s leaving, mom, can I please go home?’ I went remote, and my mom convinced me to go back for the last six weeks. I’m back, and it’s been okay.”

Similar to many others, Cassidy Sudekum felt the same about remote learning but still saw the positives of the situation.

“It was weird, obviously. We went from having all of our classes on paper with a little of it being online, and then it was suddenly online,” she said. “I think it prepared us as seniors for college. Some classes I’m taking in college are online, even though I’ll be on campus. It wasn’t exactly what we wanted for our senior year, but that did prepare us.”

At a different point for many students, those who had stayed home began shifting to in-person learning. For Janicek, it was an odd experience after so much time passed.

“We had been remote for so long. We went remote, I think, in March 2020,” said Janicek. “After summer, when we came back, it was weird being here. Seeing everyone’s faces and the whole mask thing was a weird experience. We also had to social distance, and that was something to get used to, too.”

Extracurricular challenges
Janicek said that the return to extracurricular activities was like reinstating a little bit of normalcy. At times it felt less important, though.

“I play soccer, and last year soccer got cut short when COVID happened,” she said. “It was like stress relief to come back, and it felt like it was sort of normal. Things were a little more normal being back. When we played without spectators, it almost felt like it wasn’t worth it.”

In October, the band put everything it had into a special show for the Liberty Hill community, something that was one of Colton Harbour’s highlight moments of the year.

“With the band, we had to space out more when we were outside,” he said. “We were able to accommodate everything and be successful. We had an opportunity to perform our show in front of the community. It was the adjustments and accommodations we made that allowed us to do that.”

Sudekum is in speech and debate and on the swim team. For her, the upheaval of normalcy couldn’t be ignored.

“It was all online, and we didn’t have any in-person tournaments. For us, that’s so weird because, normally, we’re in front of real judges,” said Sudekum. “Everything changed down to the questioning and what topics we were debating. For state, we normally go to the Capitol and debate in chambers but this year was all online.”

Garza is a member of the Liberty Belles dance team and laments the missed experiences of being a senior on the squad.

“In camps over the summer, we didn’t get to go attend any. They were all virtual, and that was boring,” said Garza. “For football season, we only had four home games and couldn’t go to away games. I missed out on all of the bus rides and memories made going to games. Not being able to have our show last year, as a senior, that’s so sad because I only had one normal year being on the team.”

Along with changes to sporting events, some of the events surrounding them suffered from COVID restrictions.

“I missed pep rallies. We didn’t have them this year, and it made me sad,” said Hyska. “I think we had one before playoffs on the football field. I was on the visitor’s side with the band, and we were kind of secluded from everything else. We couldn’t hear the music, but it looked good. It just didn’t feel the same.”

Now in their final weeks, the seniors will have the opportunity to enjoy some traditional events.

“I was afraid we were going to miss prom and powderpuff because we didn’t get it last year. Recently we learned we get to do prom, and that’s exciting. It feels good to have some of the major events.”

Free time
Part of the nature of online learning is extra free time for students. How that time is used varies, but for a few, it opened up new avenues.

“I used my time off to get my first job at H-E-B, and I’m very fortunate for that because I know a lot of people are without jobs or got laid off,” said Polser. “I’ve been able to work a lot more and grow my relationship with the company. That’s been positive for me and a great distraction. It is weird because I’ve never known my partners there without masks.”

Harbour, like Polser, has used his time to focus on his job of two years, working his way up and earning new responsibilities.

“I’ve been working at Moonies Burger House for two years pre-COVID,” he said. “I used to work up front with people, then things changed. I had the opportunity to go to my boss and tell him I wanted to work more. I was able to work 40 hours a week and learn new skills. They started trusting me with a key to the store.”

Sudekum used her new abundance of free time to try something she had always wanted to – acting.

“I had always wanted to do theater, but I didn’t have time,” she said. “Not traveling for a swim or traveling for debate left me with enough time to do theater. I was in the play. I know that if it wasn’t for this pandemic, I wouldn’t have had the time or opportunity to do this. Even though we missed out on a lot, we did have a lot of new opportunities.”

Some students used their time to focus on their own health and well-being.

“I took the time for relaxation. More of a self-care sort of thing,” said Hyska. “I have hard classes and am constantly under stress. Having more time on my hands was really nice. I could do my hobbies that I love to do. I could play guitar as long as I want. It was nice to have an excuse to take some time off.”

Perspective
At the end of a year like no other, the excitement to move into the next chapter of their lives is apparent.

“It’s so exciting to start this new chapter of life, and with the vaccine coming out, there’s so much hope for the future and things going back to normal,” said Janicek. “I’m excited to be able to go to college and potentially do all of the things that I expect from college. To just experience that gives some hope.”

Sudekum believes their experiences over the last year will galvanize them in upcoming challenges.

“It’s been a unique experience. We’re probably going to be the only class of seniors that can say we spent a whole year in a pandemic,” said Sudekum. “This forced us to be more responsible. For things like applying for college, we couldn’t run down the hall to a counselor. We had to make efforts to do things. As a class, as a group, we are more responsible.”

At the end of the day, Polser hopes that folks walk away with a new appreciation for life.

“Count your blessings. Count your lucky stars. Do not take things for granted,” she said. “I just hope people realize there are so many things that we do that get taken for granted. I really feel there are times and things we’ve brushed off in the past. People realize how much they enjoyed them now. It’s made us self-reflect, and hopefully, our world is better for that.”

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