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Recent grads in Washington County share what it's like to lose their senior year to a pandemic.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Teddy Fronczak, ASB president and part of Tualatin High School's Class of 2020, will start college in Florida in the fall, after a bizarre school year cut short by the coronavirus pandemic.Teddy Fronczak remembers joking with his friends as he walked out of school on a Thursday in early March.

"I remember talking with my friends and as we were walking out the door, I was like, 'What if this is the last time I'm gonna open these doors? What if we're walking out of high school for the last time? What if this is our last day?"

The Tualatin High School senior couldn't have imagined the weeks, or months, that would follow.

On March 10, schools across Oregon were weighing whether to cancel classes, as COVID-19 cases began cropping up in the Pacific Northwest. First came the two-week closure on March 13. Then, as the end of spring break neared, the joke Fronczak muttered weeks earlier was no longer distant or hypothetical.

A pandemic was changing the world. A stay-home order was issued for Oregon on March 23. Public life transformed, and nearly disappeared, in a matter of days.

On April 8, the state ordered schools to close for the rest of the year.

"It's definitely been a weird experience because it kind of happened out of nowhere," said Fronczak, 18. "It was like one day we're in school, and the next day, it's over."

Fronczak recounts his daily life before COVID-19.

On school days, he'd wake up around 5 a.m., get some homework done, and use Post-It notes, or his cell phone's notes app to leave reminders for himself.

He worked on the school newspaper staff, participated in track and soccer, and was the Associated Student Body president at Tualatin High. After school, he'd work evening shifts at Dutch Bros. Coffee. The chain of roadside coffee stands is known for its high energy, youthful staff and unpretentious drinks.

Senior year was a big deal, both academically and socially.

"The fall of my senior year was one of the more stressful times," Fronczak recalled of gearing up for spring exams and prepping for college admissions. "Now, sitting at home with nothing to do, I probably didn't appreciate it in the moment because it was stressful."

Aside from his job, everything is different now.

By mid-April, as distance learning was in full swing for most students, Fronczak says seniors stopped turning in school work assignments. IB exams were canceled, and Oregon students were graded on a pass/fail basis, rather than receiving letter grades.

It seemed the hard work and academic ethics Fronczak worked to uphold suddenly became moot.

"They've just kind of let seniors off the hook," he said.

At work, Fronczak and his coworkers started wearing masks during their shifts, in accordance with local health guidelines. Things he and most everyone else took for granted — going for coffee, meeting with friends, walking into a grocery store — seemed like risky behavior.

While it's caused more than 120,000 deaths in the United States alone and brought the economy to its knees, the pandemic has had a unique impact on the Class of 2020.

"Even if some people didn't love school, you all just had that consistency of going every day from 8 to 3," Fronczak said. "You had a sense of belonging and happiness that you were part of that, and it's all just been taken away."

Some say it's too soon to gauge the long-term impacts, if any, of skipping so many milestones of adolescence.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Like many graduating seniors, Elle Sherman was disappointed that her senior year was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.Elle Sherman, a Tualatin High School senior and friend of Fronczak, recalls a sense of disbelief, followed by a lack of closure.

"The Thursday before spring break, I was freaking out, because I was like, 'School cannot be canceled.' And then they were like, 'No school. You won't be coming back until a week after spring break,'" she said. "I just broke down in tears. I was so upset. I had always imagined having my teachers, everyone there beside me. I was mad. I was mad at the world."

Sherman recounts the rest of her senior year in what resembles a guidebook for the stages of grief. She'd tackled denial and anger. Then came the bargaining.

"I still was holding on to that hope that we would come back," she said. "Once I found out for sure that school was just canceled, and we'd be done if we had passing grades, I was like, 'That's it? No goodbyes?"

Before the virus became widespread, Sherman played sports and had a job as a swim teacher and lifeguard at the Tualatin High School pool. She lost her job when the pool and other public facilities closed, and had to apply for unemployment benefits.

A few weeks after what would have been senior prom, Sherman stood on her front lawn. In her arms, the prom dress she never got to wear — a silvery, muted lilac gown — draped over her skin. She purchased it long before schools were shut down and had started planning for the big day, little by little.

Among the virus's impacts to her last year of high school, Sherman says not getting a senior prom stings the most.

"I knew the dress I was going to (wear). I knew the friends I was going with. It was going to be a girls' senior prom night with all of my friends," Sherman recalled. "I had a plan for my makeup. I had pearl clips for my hair."

There was a sense of disbelief, followed by acceptance.

"It was really hard at first to realize everything I was looking forward to this year was just gone, out the window," Sherman said. "But these last couple months I've been able to focus on myself and what I want to do, where I want to go to college."

Michael Cady Russell is a counselor at Mt. Tabor Middle School in Portland. Early on into the state closures and social restrictions, Cady Russell recognized the psychological impact the pandemic would have on children and teens.

Hard conversations were inevitable. He offered advice to parents and adult leaders.

"With the kids, as they get closer to middle school and high school, really acknowledging during this time, you're starting to feel guilty about being mad this is happening to you," Cady Russell said, noting the importance of "understanding the broader impact of what's going on."

"The way to try to help young people reframe this, is yes, this is something horrible that's happening across the country, but look, we get to have dinner together every night, we're able to talk more, we're able to engage in new and unique ways," Cady Russell added.

Sherman said if there's any silver lining to be found, it's exactly that.

"I've been able to spend a lot of time with family and they've been lifting me up and getting me ready for the next year," she said, noting her plans to start a merchandising management program at Oregon State University in the fall.

Shem Malone, a teacher and graduation adviser at Tualatin High, said it's difficult to tell how this bizarre year will ultimately impact seniors, socially and psychologically, but if there's one thing it has proven, it's their resiliency.

"They're definitely gonna be more resilient than we give them credit for," Malone said. "That doesn't mean they haven't felt despair or sadness or disappointment, but they're like, 'Oh, let's make it better.' There's a little bit of stoicism too, now that they've gotten over the disappointment. I think now they're starting to think about college and while that sort of unknown is definitely to be worried about, I also think too, it hasn't broken them.

"This is what it's like to live through history," he added. "These kids, they get birthed out (of) 9/11, and they're part of that reaction, and then a recession, and (the election of Donald) Trump and then the pandemic."

As the school year wrapped up and Fronczak and his peers prepared for their final hurrah — a drive-thru graduation ceremony and virtual commencement on June 20. The seniors graduated — in person, but not all together.

Fronczak led his fellow graduates in the turning of tassels tradition. Next, he'll turn the page of his own life as he prepares to study at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

By Courtney Vaughn
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