Desks in empty classroom

Oh, how we wept for the Class of 2020, whose proms and track meets and high school graduations were canceled or delayed because of the coronavirus. But it turns out we should have saved our tears for the Class of 2021.

Think about everything the Class of 2020 got to do before the shutdown in March of their senior year, and then consider everything the Class of 2021 has lost out on.

Some students spent their senior year learning online, while others participated in a hybrid system that involved going to school some days and studying from home.

Ditching school used to mean not showing up at all or sneaking out at some point in the day. For some seniors, it has meant not logging on.

Traditions changed. For example, football playoffs were held this spring instead of last fall.

I didn’t realize high schools were holding proms this year until I was eating dinner at Steuben’s the other Saturday night with my good friend Tustin Amole, whose move to Cortez a couple of years ago exacerbated my loneliness when COVID-19 hit.

A young couple walked in. He wore a suit and a boutonniere. She wore a long dress and a corsage. I stopped by their table at some point that night and asked the prom-goers what high school they attended. Broomfield. They were so sweet.

I felt compelled to offer some unsolicited advice for the evening.

“Don’t have unprotected sex,” I said.

How naive we were last year when we thought this COVID thing would blow over and life would soon return to normal. So far nearly 6,500 people in Colorado have died from COVID-19.

I booked four plane tickets I never used in 2020, and I decided to let my beloved TSA pass expire because I wasn’t certain when I would return to an airport. In the meantime I’ve racked up plenty of frequent flyer miles trying to save our restaurants with large take-out orders.

Colorado’s first COVID-19 case was announced March 5, 2020. Only a few weeks later I wrote about the many milestones we were missing because of the pandemic, including birthday parties, family reunions and graduations.

I quoted Denver City Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval, whose daughter Isabella was scheduled to graduate in two months from North High School.

“If there’s a high school senior in your life, give them a hug. To them, the cancellation of school is not a vacation. It’s wasted time they don’t get to spend with their friends the last few months before they graduate,” she wrote on Facebook.

“They’re anxious, realizing they may never be able to walk the halls for the last time … . They’re sad hearing their senior prom they’ve been waiting on all year has a chance of being canceled. They’re nervous that they may not be able to walk the stage and get the diploma they have been working hard on for 12 years.

“Show them support and love them during these hard times. #classof2020#.”

I particularly loved the Facebook tribute from Dan Haley, a former journalist turned banker turned oil-and-gas man. His daughter was a 2020 graduate of Ralston Valley High School.

“Twelve years of homework, science fair projects, school plays, homemade Valentine’s Day boxes, sleepovers, Girl Scouts, sports, poms, school dances, homecomings, parties, and one pandemic finally culminated today in a three-month delayed, masked, socially distant outdoor graduation ceremony,” he wrote last August.

“Congratulations to our daughter and to all of the Class of 2020. You’re inheriting a mess. Our bad. Best of luck.”

Haley’s daughter is spending her first year of college at home taking online classes at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, which she plans to attend in person in the fall. Haley’s youngest daughter is a freshman at Ralston Valley and is experiencing a hybrid for her first year in high school.

Haley feels for the Class of 2021.

“These kids missed everything. They’re getting a prom now and that’s it,” he said. “This social experiment of locking people down for months on end, we’ve never dealt with it before and I think it’s especially hard on kids.”

The reality is schools are much more than learning the 3 Rs, as we said back in my day. They provide stability, connections to resources such as food and counseling. They also provide a structure and routine for students. Some kids are lucky enough to have a good home and a fast internet, but even those teens are finding their changed circumstances difficult.

Insurance claims for mental and behavioral health for teens have gone up since the start of the pandemic, according to a study of private health-care claims released in March.

Although schools closed in mid-March last year because of the pandemic, Colorado’s high school graduation rate in 2020 climbed to a record 81.9%, according to the Colorado Department of Education.

“The global pandemic, which caused disruption in the latter part of the 2019-20 school year, did not have much impact on graduation and dropout rates for that year. It is anticipated the pandemic will impact the rates for the 2020-21 school year, but the extent will not be known until the data are collected after the school year,” the department noted.

How prophetic: may take a sharper toll on future classes of high school graduates.

We won’t know until the data is collected and compiled after this school year, but I think the results will be frightening.

I know this firsthand. When I visit my sister, her husband and their three kids I hear endless discussions between the kids and their parents about homework that wasn’t turned in, timelines to bring up grades that weren’t met and low grades that were inconceivable a year ago.

All three attend North High School. The eldest, Bente, my goddaughter, got COVID-19 over Labor Day, but recovered. She is scheduled to graduate from North on May 27 at Xfinity Park in Glendale.

The school notified families that each graduate is allowed to bring up to four guests (children under 2 do not count). That limit is standard for all Denver Public School graduations to “limit risk and exposure to COVID-19.”

To the Class of 2022: May a bit of normalcy return to your lives.

Lynn Bartels thinks politics is like sports but without the big salaries and protective cups. The Washington Post's "The Fix" blog named her one of Colorado's best political reporters and tweeters. Bartels, a South Dakota native, graduated from Cottey College in 1977 and Northern Arizona University in 1980 and then moved to New Mexico for her first journalism job. The Rocky Mountain News hired her in 1993 as its night cops reporter and in 2000 assigned her to her first legislative session. The Gold Dome hasn't been the same since. In 2009, The Denver Post hired Bartels after the Rocky closed, just shy of its 150th birthday. Bartels left journalism in 2015 to join then Secretary of State Wayne Williams's staff. She has now returned to journalism - at least part-time - and writes a regular political column for Colorado Politics.

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