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As school year ends, McHenry County teachers, principals, graduates reflect on COVID-19, first full year back

One graduate said the pandemic had a ‘devastating’ effect on his high school experience. Meanwhile, schools tried to provide support systems for returning students

Graduates march onto the football field during a graduation ceremony for the class of 2022 on Saturday, May 14, 2022, at Crystal Lake South High School in Crystal Lake.

As the school year across McHenry County begins to wrap up with graduation, celebrations and senior portraits, the occasion is being marked by something that felt almost forgotten to many: a full school year uninterrupted by COVID-19.

In a year that started with masks but was otherwise a full-time return to in-person class, principals, teachers and students remember a school year that landed much closer to normal, but still presented struggles.

“Everybody knew we were going to be coming back into a different year,” McHenry High School Principal Jeff Prickett said. “We just didn’t know how new.”

Despite the celebrations and looking to what comes next, Logan Fuhler, 17, who graduated from Crystal Lake Central High School this weekend, said the COVID-19 pandemic was “devastating” to his high school experience.

“Before COVID-19 I was doing pretty [well] and on the right track,” he said. “But after it hit, my GPA went down, my attention span in class was tremendously hurt and my mental health was definitely a struggle.”

Graduates listen to a speaker Saturday, May 14, 2022, during the graduation ceremony at Woodstock North High School.

Those mental health issues caused many schools to reassess some of their processes to help students better deal with those challenges. A few officials said the pandemic put a spotlight on mental health. It was a point of emphasis for Woodstock High School in preparing students to come back, Principal Art Vallicelli said.

“There was definitely some depression that emerged from being at home, being worried about loved ones and losing loved ones,” Vallicelli said.

Although academic gaps created from the time at home was real too, Vallicelli said, calling the issue “compounded.” Students dealing with things at home while also learning remotely led some to fall behind, he said.

Crystal Lake Central graduate Guinevere Popovich, 18, said she feels like she’s missing years of school in her academics as a result of the pandemic.

“I took a math class junior year and I remember nothing, I have no knowledge of that course,” she said. “It was just like I didn’t take that class.”

Despite coming back full-time, there were moments throughout the year when swaths of students would be out of class because of COVID-19. McHenry High Spanish teacher Otto Corzo said that created problems.

“Having to help students catch up consistently was a challenge,” he said. “It’s hard to understand the impact of having seven students out. It changes the culture of the classroom.”

Guinevere Popovich helps straight up Logan Fuhler’s gown Saturday, May 14, 2022, ahead of the graduation ceremony at Crystal Lake Central High School.

A challenge in transitioning back to full-time in-person also created hurdles, Corzo said. Getting students used to being back in school and sometimes having to hold them accountable was something to reestablish, he said.

“The first week of my class we didn’t even do anything academic,” he said. “It was just focused around reestablishing that community. I think a lot of teachers took that approach.”

For Popovich, coming back was the first time she truly got to attend school. Just before the pandemic began, Popovich transferred from Prairie Ridge High School in Crystal Lake to Crystal Lake Central.

She then spent almost all of her first year-and-a-half learning remotely, which never gave her a chance to get to know her peers, she said. Despite this, she said she enjoyed Central and was happy she transferred.

“By the time I got to my senior year it felt like ... I was never going to get to really know these people,” she said. “I knew I wasn’t really going to have any long-term friends.”

Fuhler said the freedom that came with learning at home was something he and others missed. The ability to go between class and browse your computer was not lost on him and his classmates, he said. But coming back and seeing people in person was nice, he said.

McHenry High School implemented a new attendance program that allowed students to come to school for half the day and work the other half of the day, Prickett said. A few dozen students were able to take advantage of the program.

“These kids were skipping class and not coming to school, period,” he said. “As of this week, every one of them will be able to graduate.”

Caps fly as as graduates celebrate their graduation Saturday, May 14, 2022, during the graduation ceremony at Prairie Ridge High School.

At Woodstock High, the pandemic gave the school a chance to reassess many of its logistics to create a better learning environment, Vallicelli said. That meant looking at things like how the cafeteria is arranged.

The pandemic also gave teachers a better grasp of how to best use technology in their teaching.

“[Technology] became an actual vehicle for teaching,” Vallicelli said.

Entering the year with masks did cause some deflation too, Prickett said. There was a longing for what everyone remembered as normal. When masks became optional midway through the year, it was a “game-changer,” Prickett said.

“I think the masks almost prohibited people from getting to know each other,” he said. “We got really good at looking at people’s eyes.”

Other unrelated challenges, such as the “devious licks” trend on TikTok, which saw students across the country vandalizing and stealing various objects from their schools, were unexpected, Prickett said.

But activities like pep rallies and sporting events saw students pack the house at McHenry High, Prickett said.

Vallicelli said he noticed a swell in the number of people attending activities and events as well throughout the year. The school’s honors banquet, as an example, saw more than 100 people than expected.

Graduation for these districts is expected to look normal too, as the largest concerns are no longer pandemic-related, but now center around questions about the weather, Prickett and Vallicelli said.

Graduates return to their seats after receiving their diplomas during a graduation ceremony for the class of 2022 on Saturday, May 14, 2022, at Cary-Grove High School in Cary.

Crystal Lake-based Community High School District 155 held graduations at its four high schools Saturday and its Haber Oaks Campus held its commencement ceremony Thursday. Woodstock North High School held its graduation Saturday evening followed by Woodstock High School Sunday morning.

McHenry County College also held its commencement ceremony Saturday.

The rest of the high schools across McHenry County will follow in the coming weeks, capping off with Johnsburg High School on June 3 and Marengo Community High School on June 5.

For this year’s graduating class, the last time they saw a normal school year they were freshmen. Popovich said she felt like it put a strain on both her academics and experiences. She also said graduating felt a little weird.

“We missed school dances, I went to football games my freshman year and then a couple my senior year and that was it,” she said. “I know that it’s gone, but I don’t feel like it is.”

The pandemic has also put a strain on many resumes and plans to go to college. Fuhler said many he knows many who had aspirations to go to college, but now aren’t sure how they’ll get in.

“The world can be a very mean place. It will beat you and keep you on your knees if you let it,” he said. “You need to take these hits and continue moving forward. Continue your passions and overcome the obstacles.”

Emily Morgan Albrecht receives her diploma from school board members Sunday, May 15, 2022, during the Woodstock High School graduation ceremony in Woodstock.