For Trayshon Spoonhunter, a successful high-school basketball career and countless hours of devotion to the game all led up to one capstone moment in the second week of March. He and his Lander Valley High School team were on the road to the state championship.
The team won its division in 2019 and was favored in 2020, he said. It was the event Spoonhunter, the starting point guard, most looked forward to in his senior year.
Just after passing Shoshoni en route to Casper, however, the team learned that the tournament was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic that was just beginning to shut down the nation.
“I was really looking forward to repeating another state title,” Spoonhunter said. “We had a really good chance again.” Instead, “we didn’t even make it there.”
Spoonhunter was so upset he skipped school the following day in protest. What he couldn’t have realized at the time was that it was his final chance to set foot in high school as a student; a string of cancellations followed, effectively closing school for the remainder of the year.
“I haven’t really seen anyone since then,” Spoonhunter said two months later. Though he kept busy riding his horses, shooting hoops, making quillwork art and finishing assignments, he said, “I kind of miss being at school, just being social.”
Spoonhunter’s experience is one of countless stories of lost opportunities, scrambled plans and major letdowns triggered by the COVID-19 outbreak. Among students, the pain has been particularly acute for seniors. The outbreak wiped out much of their final semester, diluted a major life milestone and stole many of the rites of passage that traditionally accompany it.
“It’s sort of a point where you can mark it in time and say, yeah I finished high school, that was a big accomplishment,” LVHS senior Li Platz said of why she looked forward to graduation.
Still, school districts across the state adapted with unorthodox ceremonies, students postponed plans and the pandemic taught many seniors an early lesson in the unpredictability of life.
“I’d say one of the bigger lessons we’ve been able to take from this is just, be prepared for life to change in an instant,” said Zakk Loveall, a senior at Casper’s Kelly Walsh High School.
Now, during a time when graduates are normally packing their bags for college, entering the job market or starting military service, many seniors are left grasping as the pandemic scuttled their plans.
“All of our plans just got dissolved,” said Jackson Hole High School senior Shannon Greene.
In a time of great uncertainty, Sweetwater County School District #1 Superintendent Kelly McGovern said one thing is sure.
“What a story to tell, to be the class of 2020,” she said.
A ‘true grief process’
Across the state this spring, students had to abruptly adapt as their schools shuttered and moved to online distance learning. For some seniors already affected by senioritis, motivation was tough — especially as some schools transitioned to a pass/fail option. For others, the convenience of studying from home was nice. But for everyone, it was a strange experience that didn’t at all match expectations.
Following the initial closure, (which many students said they assumed would be an extended spring break), the severity of the situation set in as school buildings remained closed and communities cancelled events like prom, school trips and graduation parties.
Bryon Lee, a counselor at Laramie High School, said he watched the stages of grief play out among seniors. “It’s kind of been a true grief and loss process from a counselor perspective,” he said.
First came bargaining, he said, as many predicted the closure would be temporary, that events like senior skip day would be salvaged.
As reality set in, he said, “I haven’t really seen the anger, but there’s definitely been the disappointment stage,” he said. “They do feel like the specialness of being a senior has been taken from them.”
LVHS senior Tristan Gabel lives out in the county, where his family doesn’t have internet access. That meant driving into town to his grandmother’s every day to do distance school work, or parking outside of the high school. That didn’t bother him as much as missing prom.
Gabel, a DJ, sends out a survey after every dance to gauge how the students enjoyed the music. After his most recent dance, Winter Ball, the survey showed the highest percentage ever of unsatisfied students.
“I didn’t do so well, and I was looking for redemption at prom,” Gabel said.
Gabel understands why everything was ultimately cancelled, but said it was still a bummer.
Laramie High School senior Miriam Gertsch, the oldest of seven kids, suddenly found herself at home with all of her siblings, trying to complete school on a computer.
“It’s kind of crazy,” she said. With two computers, they eventually figured out a system and Gertsch said she ultimately enjoyed spending so much time with her brothers and sisters.
Her family also gamely came up with solutions to the events she was looking forward to. They threw her a prom, and she and her siblings stayed up all night in place of the post-graduation party.
Laramie High School senior Arundathi Nair figured that the grind of college prep, extracurriculars and club activity that defined the majority of her high school experience was going to pay off with a light schedule her final semester. She’d finally get to just spend time hanging with her friends, she thought.
“You have so many things going on … and it feels like you work so hard,” Nair said. “The one thing everyone looks forward to is senior spring. The entire second semester was supposed to be hanging out, having fun.”
Nair, who lodged that complaint only after acknowledging that her problems are minor in the grand scheme of things, instead spent much of the semester at home, revisiting old hobbies.
Academic contests, career development conferences and mock trial meet-ups were cancelled. She was accepted to Stanford University, but “admit weekend,” which allows incoming students to get to know the campus, was also nixed.
But Nair isn’t dwelling on her own woes. “There’s a lot of focus on this graduating class,” she said, “but it sucks for everyone. It’s affecting a lot more people than we think.”
Hosting a traditional graduation ceremony during a pandemic is a tricky prospect. School districts around the state adjusted with a variety of alternatives, from postponement to drive-in ceremonies to spacing kids out on outdoor fields while their parents watched from their vehicles.
Sweetwater County District #1, home to Rock Springs High School, took that school’s ceremony online with a virtual graduation. Speeches were pre-recorded and every member of the class of 300-plus drove up to the school and was photographed receiving a diploma. Then it was all stitched together into a YouTube video. There were also parades, drive-in movies and other acts meant to celebrate the kids, Superintendent McGovern said.
“Our community, they rallied around this,” McGovern said. “Sometimes I think in times of uncertainty, anything you can do to bring people together and give them some purpose” is welcome. “The graduation did it.”
For Jackson senior Greene, safety amendments to the ceremony didn’t erase another disappointment. Her extended family had planned to travel to Jackson to watch her graduate.
Greene bounced around the country a lot as a kid, and her mother died when she was 10. She moved to Jackson to live with her aunt and uncle before her freshman year, and found stability and community. She was excited for her whole family to convene there.
“That was going to be a very special moment for me, and now I can’t have them with me,” she said. “It’s a little bit sad, definitely disappointing.”
Her father, who works at a grocery store in New Orleans, still planned to make the trip.
Now that it has survived the chaos of its scrambled final semester, the class of 2020 finds itself in a landscape of more uncertainty.
Most colleges haven’t finalized plans for the fall semesters; it remains to be seen if they’ll opt for online learning or on-campus education. The job market has shriveled as a recession takes hold, and even the idea of taking a gap year to travel is in limbo as many restrictions remain.
Greene of Jackson had planned to do a “bridge” program at the University of Wyoming, which allows students to start classes earlier in smaller groups. The program is intended to ease the transition into college, and Greene, who suffers from ADHD and other difficulties with learning, was looking forward to the leg-up it would give her, she said.
Now she’s not sure if it’ll happen. “Everything’s still up in the air, which is not very fun,” she said.
Platz of Lander was accepted to Williams College in Massachusetts. “They said that they would let us know by July 1 what the fall semester will look like,” she said.
She already had a trip to the Galapagos Islands with her grandfather cancelled, as well as a triathlon she was going to do with her father. Her graduation present, a trek in Norway with her grandmother, also isn’t happening this summer. Platz normally works as a lifeguard, but as of May the pool had been closed for a couple months, so she was considering seeking another summer job.
“But yea, who knows?” she said. “It’s just so many unknowns.”
In terms of how the seniors will be affected by this, Sweetwater Superintendent McGovern said, “I think kids are very versatile and flexible.” This whole ordeal can perhaps offer a lesson, she said, “for them to know that things change, and how we react to that change is up to us.”
In her virtual graduation speech, Rock Springs High School Senior Class President Annika Syvrud told her peers this: “I know every year that people say, this class is going to change the world. But instead of saying that cliché in my speech, I’ll instead say, this is a class that persevered when the whole world changed, because the whole world truly did change in these past few months.”