‘We never expected a virus to take down our world’; How students are dealing with the pandemic

Mayson Sersansie, an 18-year-old senior at Desert Hills High School, smiles for the camera, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Mayson Sersansie, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Mayson Sersansie, an 18-year-old senior at Desert Hills High School, had just finished a golf tournament the day before she heard the announcement that high school spring sports were being temporarily suspended and schools would be closed for two weeks due to the coronavirus.

Sersansie is one of some 3.7 million high school seniors in the United States who are expected to graduate this year, a group of students who will share a unique bond for having been largely born the year of 9/11 and are graduating the year of the coronavirus. She is also one of at least 55.1 million students in the U.S. who have been impacted by current school closures.

In the beginning, Sersansie told St. George News that she thought of the two-week closure as a fun break and urged herself to just stay positive and look forward to when school was back inside the classroom. She had just won a golf tournament and was feeling momentum.

But when Gov. Gary Herbert officially announced on April 14 that schools would be dismissed for the rest of the school year, the reality hit hard and is something she’s been grappling with ever since.

“This is the time when we do all the fun things at school and all the senior stuff,” she said. “We’ve literally worked so hard for 12 years – in elementary we were thinking about graduation day. We don’t think about college graduation day. High school graduation is the graduation.”

Mayson Sersansie, an 18-year-old senior at Desert Hills High School, smiles for the camera, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Mayson Sersansie, St. George News

Without the traditional graduation ceremony she said, “it really just does not feel finished. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel complete.”

Growing up, she and her peers always considered 2020 as the coolest year to graduate because the number felt somewhat auspicious, she said. But in light of the current situation, the future seems more unstable.

“The fact that such a powerful year got twisted and no one expected it is crazy,” she said, “because now you don’t know what could happen at any time of your life – or anyone’s life. You never know what to expect. In a couple months, you don’t know if this is going to be all over, or if there is going to be a new virus with everything changing again. We never expected a virus to take down our world.”

As a senior, remote instruction has been particularly challenging in maintaining motivation.

“Senioritis is actually a thing,” she said. “And so even when we’re at school, we don’t want to do our work. But now that we’re at home, it’s so hard because now we don’t have a graduation ceremony – we do – but not like a normal one. So it makes us not want to work because we don’t really get an award for it. Even though that’s not how it is, but that’s just how it feels, you know?”

The class of 2020 is strong, and it might not be easy, she said, but they will get through. It just feels unbearable because they’re in the middle of it.

“Right now, I’m thinking this is the worst thing in my life, but there’s going to be way worse, and maybe there has been way worse, but right now I can only think about this and what’s happening to me. But there’s a lot worse things going on in the world.”

Sersansie said despite the difficult situation, she’s still feeling positive. She’s keeping her eye on the road ahead, where in the fall she’ll be starting college at Dixie State University.

She’s also been feeling the love from the unexpected support she’s been getting from friends and family. With the pandemic being such a large-scale crisis, she said none of the seniors were expecting anyone to really care about them and thought they would’ve been forgotten.

“But the fact that people are actually caring and reaching out to us and making these cool videos and being on our side is what’s cool to see. And to see our communities all coming together and our different schools coming together – even our rivalries. I’ve talked to so many Dixie and Pine View kids and the love that I have for them now – because they’re going through what I’ve been going through – is amazing.”

Junior stays on track

Riley Jones, a 17-year-old junior at St. George Academy, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Riley Jones, St. George News

Riley Jones, a 17-year-old junior at St. George Academy, told St. George News that the school closures were somewhat anticipated. She had overheard conversations about the probability.

When the news came, “we were listening to the governor’s address in my math class that Friday. We were all expecting it, but we weren’t that prepared for it. It was weird. It was a weird feeling.”

Unlike other schools, Jones said her teachers haven’t decreased the workload, and it’s the steady workload that is fueling her motivation and keeping her academically challenged.

To stay on track, she said she wakes up at 8 a.m. every day like it’s a normal school day.

“I make a to-do list and put it on my mirror, and I check off every class that I do. It’s not like I have a certain time I have to finish it by, but of course there are due dates. If it’s an A day, then I focus on those classes,” she said. “And then I try to fit other things in there before I go to work just so I don’t get bored, and I don’t feel like I’m doing nothing during this quarantine.”

The most challenging part of remote instruction is trying to retain information through just reading what’s on a screen, she said. But conversely it also feels like she can get more done in a day.

“I guess you could say it’s kind of a condensed school day. It takes like three hours, and I get everything done. I feel as if sometimes, those eight hours a day at school aren’t that necessary.”

But even still, she said the one-on-one, teacher-student relationship is irreplaceable and is what she misses most.

Jones will be attending Dixie State for some of her classes in the fall and hopes to be on campus for these, but admitted she does worry about what might happen if a second wave of the virus hits.

“I don’t know if I’d be as motivated as a senior as I am right now if this happened again – that’s what I’m worried about.”

Like Sersansie, Jones is staying positive and has a newfound joy that’s getting her through.

“I’ve been buying a lot of plants,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve just been planting, and that’s kind of a hobby I picked up during this pandemic.”

Jones considers this time as valuable in understanding the need for financial preparedness and in gaining an appreciation for people and the work they do.

“I think we’re all collectively gaining a new respect for workers who we pushed aside,” she said, “like our teacher and our healthcare workers.”

“I didn’t think I would miss school”

Savannah Polhamus, 16, and a junior at St. George Academy, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Savannah Polhamus, St. George News

When Savannah Polhamus, 16, and a junior at St. George Academy first heard about the closures she was kind of excited she told St. George News. She imagined herself in her pajamas doing school work and was interested in trying out online learning for the first time.

But soon after the transition, things changed.

“I didn’t think I would miss school. I want to go back so bad. I didn’t think that would happen, but here we are.”

Even as a straight-A student, remote instruction has been particularly difficult for Polhamus because she is a very social person.

“Being inside all the time – it’s hard because you can’t see anyone, and it’s just kind of lonely and work tends to be harder, because there’s so much you want to do, and so it’s hard to focus.”

The most difficult subject to learn through remote teaching is chemistry, she said.

“It’s hard to understand in class, and learning it on your own – well kind of on your own, reading it and all that – it’s harder to focus,” she said. “And you can’t really interact with the teacher and ask questions as it goes on. You have to want to learn.”

Though Zoom meetings can’t compare to being in the classroom, she said, “it’s really nice to see everyone. I feel like it’s a whole lot easier to connect with people when you can see them face to face even if it’s over a computer.”

Considering what’s happening with this year’s senior class, Polhamus said she feels like she is going to enter senior year with gratitude. Though right now, she said her emotions have been in a constant flux.

“There are some days when I’m really depressed, and I’m like, ‘I really just don’t want to get out of bed and then at the same time I want to go see people.’ And then there are other days where I’m like, ‘Wow I’m going to workout today, I’m going to work on a new art project.'”

The greatest loss during this time is that she said she feels like she’s losing all her social skills.

“I’ll be talking to a friend on the phone who I haven’t heard from in a while, and I’ll be talking, and either I’m on a tangent or I don’t know what to say, and I used to be really good at conversations and keeping on topic. But now all the conversations are so dry because no one knows how to talk to each other anymore, but we’re still trying to connect.”

She said she knows a few peers who are struggling because they are used to using school and work as an escape.

“The only thing we can do right now is stay positive, try to do what you can. If you need to go outside, put on a mask, go for a run, keep distancing yourself because it will only get better the longer we stay away.”

Despite the social distancing, the school closures and the time away from friends, Polhamus said she can’t help but see a silver lining.

“As a community, somehow this virus has brought everyone together in a way. There are suddenly so many people outside. I feel like with my neighbors, I never saw them before, but now I do and it’s a great time.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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