By Caroline Peplinski, Current Staff
The coronavirus pandemic forever changed the lives of nearly every human on the planet. Current juniors at the West Bend High Schools, for example, have never had a normal year of high school.
From missed homecomings to cancelled sports seasons to persisting academic difficulties, these teens’ experiences have been unlike any idealized expectations they’d held three years ago as ninth graders.
“I think it was rough for everyone academically, mentally, physically,” East junior Fiona Shaw said.
While for some it feels like ages ago, school life hasn’t been normal since March 13, 2020. That’s the date when the world shut down. For the West Bend High Schools, that meant when all students went 100% online.
“It just got me to a lower place than what I normally would’ve been in,” East junior Delanie Heinen said. “It was really hard to focus, get things done, ask questions. It felt like I wasn’t really learning.”
Olivia Walker, who is now a West junior but was attending St. Mary Springs High School in Fond du Lac when the pandemic started, says the experience in Fond du Lac resembled what was happening in West Bend.
“I was failing all my classes in the beginning (of the pandemic) because of online,” Walker said.
Mirroring recommendations set last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, West Bend schools required masks for students and faculty. They also implemented quarantining guidelines that kept home students who had been in close contact with infected individuals. These quarantines weren’t a pleasant time for some members of the student body.
“(Quarantining) sucks, and it’s terrible,” West junior Morgan Rasmussen said.
She acknowledged, though, that it wasn’t the district’s fault that juniors have yet to experience a normal high school year. She says that actions were necessary for the school district to fight COVID-19. Other West Bend juniors echo this sentiment.
However, such precautions came at a cost. Some activities that define the high school experience, like athletics, were limited and restricted. Others, like field trips, were completely off the table. Classic outings, like band trips to other countries or foreign exchange programs, were suddenly impossible.
Athletic and co-curricular restrictions especially were a source of difficulty, confusion and contention among students and the community.
For West junior Sarah Schmidt, COVID-related protocols ended up negatively impacting her team’s ability to perform.
“We had to wear masks and gloves while performing, and the gloves made it super hard to do any skills,” Schmidt said. “A couple girls got hurt because of it.”
These physical requirements impacted students’ ability to engage in extracurricular activities. Sports, while restricted, were generally able to go on. Clubs, on the other hand, were often forced to remain virtual. This led to frustration and participation disparities between members of the two groups.
“I think last year they were a bit hypocritical with their guidelines in regards to sports versus other activities,” Shaw said. “It was frustrating for me and I saw a lot of other people who were frustrated by it. Things like the musical were cancelled but football players could practice together and then just come to school.”
Heinen echoed those thoughts.
“If you can have a sports practice, why can’t you have theater?,” she said. “Why can’t you incorporate masks into that and still do it? I didn’t get that part.”
Limits on normal high school behavior are ongoing to some extent. While not currently under last year’s system, student life is still impacted by quarantining suggestions, optional mask wearing, and activity wariness. This new approach from the school district at the high school so far inspires different feelings for the juniors.
“I like the optional mask policy,” Schmidt said. “I like the fact that we are able to do virtual days if we need to stay home sick, and I’m glad I can be fully in person.”
Other juniors hold opposite opinions.
“This year they haven’t done anything, and I understand where they’re coming from,” Shaw said. “They want us to have a normal year, but we’re not going to if it keeps going this way.”
The school district has had a difficult job attempting to tackle the pandemic’s circumstances in the last few years. They’ve had to juggle community input, student experience, and general health and safety while keeping educational quality number one.
“I couldn’t predict when our juniors began high school how different things would become,” said Ralph Schlass, head principal at West High School. “These are unique times and we’ve had to make accommodations.”
Despite these difficult conditions and tumultuous times, Schlass as well as students have hope for the rest of the juniors’ time at WBHS.
“We have been able to continue many of our traditions and continue to offer school activities but in a manner different than in the past,” Schlass said.
Walker is looking forward to making more friends in West Bend and attending this year’s prom. Shaw, too, lists prom among the events she is most eager to participate in.
“I look forward to going on field trips again, getting out of the class,” she said. “I look forward to prom, if it happens. I’m looking forward to feeling comfortable enough in the school to not wear a mask.”
(Top image: West Bend’s mock trial team following last year’s online-only competition. Photo courtesy of the team.)