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Seniors rise above COVID calamity

Editor's Corner

Photo by Ron Szot Having a baseball season was one of the bright spots for Fredonia High senior Joey VanDette.

High school Class of 2021 members have been through a trying — and often bittersweet — 15 months. From the first shutdown due to COVID-19 in March 2020 as juniors to the final exams of this year’s fourth quarter, this collection of seniors has not only had to tolerate plenty of uncertainty, they also have missed so much in one of life’s greatest milestones.

There was no homecoming. Winter balls or scheduled dances were never considered through April. Sports seasons were shortened with some athletic events played during unlikely times of year. Finally, the reduction of in-person classes that included instruction through Zoom or Google Classroom made this once-in-a-lifetime journey even less personal.

Through all the chaos created by a vicious virus, however, these senior class members have endured. Their reward comes this weekend as more than 1,000 Chautauqua County seniors will receive their diplomas for all they have accomplished in an unprecedented time.

As New York state reopens at a fast pace due to vaccination numbers rising, there will be commencement ceremonies and plenty of graduation parties. It is a very different situation from what Class of 2020 experienced last year when no one was quite sure how to proceed.

Nevertheless, there has to be plenty of mixed emotions.

Maureen Donahue, Southwestern Central Schools superintendent, saluted this group in a letter in The Post-Journal graduation section on Thursday. “This class has proven its ability to adapt and be creative in the learning process, while supporting each other along the altered path you were all forced onto,” she wrote. “You have had challenges and growth opportunities that previous graduates have not endured. Your flexibility and ingenuity will serve you well in all of your future college, career, and life endeavors.”

Other school leaders offered similar sentiments. How could you not be impressed by the work and attitudes of these young adults?

Joey VanDette, a Fredonia High School senior, will be graduating on Sunday. For the second consecutive year, the ceremonies for his district will take place at the Chautauqua County Fairgrounds instead of the traditional Rockefeller Arts Center at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

In an interview earlier this week, VanDette admitted some disappointment in missing the full experience. However, he remained upbeat throughout this unusual time of everyone’s life.

“It went as good as it could have possibly gone,” he said. “It’s hard to start the year … with some people back at school and some people don’t. … I feel like toward the end of the year … in the fourth quarter, when everyone started going back, things started to get a little bit back to normal.”

There still is plenty of sentiment over what might have been for all these individuals. Once children move to the high school years, they look forward to being at the pinnacle — having that moment in the sun and being looked up to as a 12th-grader.

“At first it was kind of rough,” VanDette said when looking back on the fall and remote learning model. “Everybody always told me senior year was going to be your best year. It was supposed to be more fun with freedom with your classmates. To have that mostly taken away is tough.”

One of the highlights for VanDette and a number of other students was a return to athletics. VanDette, a baseball standout who plans to continue playing the sport when he attends SUNY Fredonia next year, savored his moments with the team.

“I really like playing sports so being able to have our season even though it didn’t go completely as planned,” he said.

There is no denying the impact COVID-19 had on all these unsung heroes. A major slice of the journey to adulthood was taken away. VanDette, despite the ups and downs of this year, does not want the Class of 2022 to face the same obstacles.

“Hopefully for the (seniors) next year, they can be back to normal,” he said.

John D’Agostino is editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 253.

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