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How Clark County’s ‘Unforgettable Class of ‘21’ persevered amid pandemic

Updated May 24, 2021 - 10:08 am

Homecoming games, winter formals, in-person spirit weeks, classes, clubs and time with friends — the list of pandemic-related cancellations and disappointments for this year’s high school seniors goes on and on.

So long is the list that many rallied behind a collective title that captured their disillusionment with their final year of high school: The Forgotten Class of 2021.

But that epithet won’t be the only one that stays with this class, seniors said.

They described this year, with all its faults, as “a time of growth” and a “blessing in disguise” that provided “proof of what (we are) capable of.” It was “historical, legendary and unforgettable,” one said.

They said they found their own ways to make up for the loss of traditional rites of passage and time with friends: One found time to hand carve a canoe from a tree, while another turned to making origami cranes — lots and lots of them — to bring good luck in the coming year.

To gather impressions of the year from the second graduating class of the pandemic era, the Review-Journal reached out to every public, private and charter high school in Clark County — nearly 100 in all — and asked principals to nominate one senior to represent their school and classmates for a project inspired by the name they chose for themselves: “The Unforgettable Class of 2021.”

Each of the 81 nominees who responded after being selected by their schools filled out a survey to tell us how they spent their year what they’ll remember when they look back.

Their words describe their hurt and heartache but offer glimmers, too, of the ingenuity and perseverance that will also be part of the legacy of the Class of ’21.

They said that staying in touch with friends, support from their families and teachers and personal accomplishments were their guiding lights through the physical and emotional toll of the COVID-19 pandemic. But they didn’t hold back in describing the downsides either, calling the year a “bittersweet” experience and “the biggest emotional roller coaster in the history of high school.”

“Each and every one of us will remember having to log in on our computer and just stare at it for multiple hours in a day. We will also remember the amount of opportunities we lost to enjoy our final year of high school with those that we wanted,” wrote Zanta Nwuli of Shadow Ridge High School.

“With that being said, we will always remember who we are and the type of strength and courage we had to display as young adults in a world that seems to be on fire.”

The pandemic year

School buildings in Nevada closed by emergency order in March 2020, disrupting the latter part of the junior year for the soon-to-be graduates.

Some private and charter schools reopened for in-person learning at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, but high school students in the Clark County School District remained online for over a year.

During distance learning, they came up with creative ways to stay in touch with friends, using group chats and Discord servers and even the sushi section of Sprouts supermarket.

“Every Wednesday, Sprouts has a sale on their sushi for $5, so every Wednesday a group of my friends and I would go to Sprouts, buy some sushi … and have a picnic in the park,” Adelson Educational Campus senior Vanessa Voltz said. “It really boosted our mental health during a difficult time.”

West Prep senior Jaymie Segura said virtual learning made school feel optional and motivation hard to find, but a group chat with friends and online student council meetings made the best of it.

“On our very first day of school, I created a group chat during our lunch break and jokingly texted my friends, ‘What’s for lunch guys?’ Segura said. “Ever since then, we all kept in contact, and till this day we text each other daily.”

Through Google Meet, Spring Valley senior Aja Melo-Powell photographed a friend in order to sketch her portrait for a Christmas gift.

“Even though this was something small, I’ll always remember it from this year because it made both of us very happy,” Melo-Powell said.

The old and the new

The innovation extended to re-creating some of the in-person traditions they were missing out on. At Centennial High School, Savannah Peterson said the student council was determined to have a Homecoming Week to remember, with virtual activities that would appeal to their peers.

“I remember such the biggest feeling of relief and pride that it had gone so well,” Peterson said. “Of course it wasn’t the ideal way of doing things, but it was the first time I realized that regardless of the situation we were all in, we could make the most of what we had. We could still create some memories with our friends.”

Giselle Strong of Clark High School wrote that her mom’s underlying health condition made it necessary to skip meeting friends for in-person events like senior sunrises. But to make up for it, the parent created a private senior sunrise in the backyard, complete with glitter and streamers in the school colors of black and gold.

“She even went to Burger King and got a cardboard crown so I could decorate it like we would if we were on campus,” Strong wrote. “I will never forget my mother trying to make the best of the situation and bring a smile to my face.”

In addition to making the best of existing traditions, students also found their own ways to mark an unusual year.

For Ethan Walker of American Heritage Academy, that meant hand-carving a 10-foot-long canoe out of a giant log with friends.

Mojave High School’s Alycelle Anne Nunez folded 2,000 paper cranes over two months — a Japanese tradition meant to bring good luck for the upcoming year.

And at Nevada State High School, Logan Yang learned to play Debussy’s “Clair De Lune” within a month, finding an emotional connection to the piece that inspired him to pursue music beyond high school.

School and the future

Rather than reflect on a single memory, Robert Sutton of Coronado High School said it’ll be the little moments that he remembers most.

“The date nights at home, the simple little workouts I did every day, the breakfasts with my family,” he wrote. “All of those little things amounted to something much greater than all the darkness going on. Those little memories are precious to me.”

Another bright spot for many grads was school, in whatever format it occurred. The classes provided structure and a chance to socialize. They said they’ll always remember kindness from their teachers, who were also dealing with the upheaval of the school year.

“My student council adviser, Mrs. Levy, drove through the entire city dropping off personalized stockings filled with goodies to the members of Student Council,” recalled Kyara Brown of CSN High School’s East campus. “It wasn’t the materialistic things that got me as much as the knowledge that she spent her free time assembling and delivering the packages to make sure we received them.”

Smaller gestures during virtual learning made an impact, too.

“My dance teacher, Miss Kim, always has me tell a joke at the end of class — however cheesy it may be — and I think it’s such a nice pick-me-up during these rough times,” Palo Verde senior Marley Steinline said.

Still, the first day back on campuses was the highlight of the year for many grads. CCSD seniors returned to school buildings March 22 but still anxiously awaited news about whether they would be able to mark the end of their high school careers with proms and in-person graduations.

“I felt like school wasn’t a tedious task that I was forced to do,” Shaunta Palmer said of returning to in-person learning at Southeast Career Technical Academy. “When coming in person, it made the senior year feel a little more worth it.”

“It was refreshing to sit at a desk in front of a whiteboard rather than be in bed in front of my laptop,” SLAM Academy’s Mateo Bautista said.

Alexandra Roberts of Amplus Academy added: “I could not stop smiling all day.”

In the next few weeks, thousands of graduates — including around 20,000 from CCSD — are set to walk across arena stages for in-person graduations. This, some wrote, is what they’ll remember most when they look back on their strange and challenging senior year.

Others have already set their sights on college, career and beyond, hoping to put the COVID-19 year behind them.

They’re disheartened but proud of surviving a pandemic.

Foothill senior Brooklyn Wiedenheft said they rank as “one of the toughest, most persevering classes.”

“In the end, we adapted and found a way to make things work even in the roughest times,” she said.

A decade from now, the Class of 2021 may even remember the year in a fonder light, said Anthony Gonzalez-Patino of Basic Academy of International Studies.

“Even though many of us seniors feel forgotten, I feel like when we look back at our high school experience 10 years from now, we’ll remember it as the best time of our adolescence and recognize that even though we faced many hardships, it made us be better people for the world.”

Contact Aleksandra Appleton at aappleton@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0218. Follow @aleksappleton on Twitter. Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.

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