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High school students missing out on milestones remain resilient, hopeful

For most students, the timeless traditions of the high school experience have long been been pleasantly predictable. Getting dressed up for the prom, taking to the field or court for the last game of senior year and walking across the stage at graduation - the styles and soundtracks behind these memorable moments have changed, but for the most part, the calendar of events has been reliable.

But over the course of the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has robbed high schoolers of these traditions, causing proms, graduations and pep rallies to be canceled. The pandemic has even kept students out of the classroom for months on end, deprived them from performing on stage and left them to play for empty stadiums. Though disappointed, many high school students across the region say they are hopeful for their futures, grateful for their health and thankful for the lessons they've learned.

In a typical year, Chelsea Taylor would have spent a good portion of her senior year on stage in the spotlight at Norwich Free Academy. A performing arts student involved in the Playshop theater program and in the school choir, Taylor planned to perform in the spring musical and share the stage with the choir a few more times.

Instead, Taylor has spent the majority of her last year of high school sitting in front of her computer, recording solo songs for her music teacher to merge with her classmates' recordings, or rehearsing through masks in a socially distant setting. She won't get to take her final bow, attend her last cast party, or hold hands with her fellow singers in the chamber choir as they harmonize one last time.

"The chamber choir last year was a very tightly knit group, we'd hold hands and jump around and stand close together and sing," she said. "And this year we have to sit six by nine feet apart."

Taylor had been cast in a Chorus Line last year, a show in which she'd expected to gain a lot of dancing and singing experience. But due to the pandemic, it was canceled. This year she has been in three productions, but they're all been virtual, and she misses the energy of the stage and a live audience.

"They've played out more like movies, she said. "It's difficult having to record everything rather than being there and doing it in person."

All of the change, she said, has been mentally taxing, but she's proud of her ability to persevere and has learned the real meaning of resiliency this year. She's been more focused on her schoolwork, she's had time to dedicate to her mental health and she's seen growth in her personal relationships, she said.

"I've grown closer to the people I need to be around, and I've lost the people that I didn't need," said Taylor. "I'm proud of my ability to have kept so much positive through this."

Sean Raymond, a 17-year-old junior at New London High School, also said he was proud of his personal growth throughout the pandemic.

"I definitely missed out on regular life, but it's been pretty good for me personally. I've picked up on healthier habits," said Raymond, a varsity basketball player.

In October, Raymond decided to delete his social media accounts to boost his productivity and improve his focus.

"In two weeks my productivity shot through the roof, whatever I wanted to get done I could get it done," he said.

Recognizing that he had a lot more free time while learning from home, he decided to make good use of it. He started a business. He is now running a digital marketing company online, helping companies manage targeted ads. He says he's impressed with the success he's experienced so far and is thankful he had the time to pursue his newfound passion.

Though he was disappointed that he had to miss out on a pep rally and likely won't have a junior prom, he's hopeful that things will be a little more normal in time for his senior year.

Lizbeth Polanco, 17, also a senior at New London High School, played volleyball in the fall and had to adapt to wearing a mask during practices.

Polanco, who wants to be an emergency room physician, said that although she's disappointed that she missed out on many traditional high school experiences, she said she knows it was necessary.

"I feel like seniors all over the country have lost a lot," she said. "For my own selfish reasons, I would like a prom, I would like a normal graduation - we still don't know whether that is going to happen - but we're in the middle of a pandemic so there's only so much you can do."

Nadya Murphy, a 16-year-old junior at New London High School, said the pandemic has given her a renewed sense of gratitude, despite the experiences she has lost this year.

Murphy, president of the junior class, said that she and her classmates experienced a lot of changes this year that they had to adjust to, from the way they learned to the way they played sports to the way they socialized.

In 2020, when she was learning entirely remotely, Murphy said she struggled to stay focused with younger siblings also learning from home. She missed the experience of eating lunch and playing games with her friends. But she said she mostly feels grateful.

"I definitely think I have gained a sense of appreciation and gratuity this year," she said. "It's no secret that COVID-19 has impacted a lot of people for the worst, between deaths and people being hospitalized, it's really scary. And I'm just very fortunate that I've been safe, my family has been safe, and I'm healthy - and I think that's all I can really ask for because a lot of people are struggling and it's heartbreaking to see. It's given me a sense of appreciation for all that I have around me and all that I'm able to do."

In Old Lyme, Fiona Frederiks felt similarly as she looked back on her senior year so far.

A senior at Old Lyme High School, Frederiks is planning to study business at Sacred Heart University in the fall, and said that although her senior year wasn't as she expected, the changes that occurred because of the pandemic provided some unexpected perks.

While applying to colleges, Frederiks was able to tour more campuses than she ever would have been able to in a normal year, expanding her options for what schools she considered.

"I did a ton of virtual tours, they aren't exactly the same because it was weird to see the empty campuses, but in a way it was very nice to have because I didn't have to travel to another state just to see a school," said Frederiks, who took virtual tours of schools in Florida, Illinois and North Carolina.

"I looked at random schools just to see what they looked like," she said. "I was able to look at a ton of schools that I wouldn't have normally checked out because they were far away."

As president of Old Lyme High School's student leaders, Frederiks said she was disappointed that she didn't get to organize the traditional pep rally this year, but she was grateful that besides large group gatherings, students in the Lyme-Old Lyme district were able to have a relatively normal year. The district is the only one in the region that stayed open for in-person schooling all year.

She said that as she reflected on all the changes this year, she recognized how lucky she was that she was able to stay in school in person and that both of her parents were still employed.

"I'm so fortunate for that, I know there are a lot of people who are struggling," she said. "I think our town has a lot to be grateful for."

t.hartz@theday.com

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