Despite COVID-19 cancellations, kids keep yearbooks a tapestry of student life
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Jeremie Denibal joined the Atlantic High School yearbook staff with purpose.
“I want to be part of the group that saves the memories. Everybody wants to look back on their high school life.”
But what if the milestones, which make high school feel like the celebratory endpoint to a 12-year education, evaporate? No homecoming dances. No pep rallies. No class trips. No prom.
For that matter, how do you stitch together the fabric of high school when more than half of your classmates never step foot on campus and those who do are wearing masks, standing 6 feet clear of anyone else and are cranked full of virus-driven anxieties no teenager for a century has had to consider?
Across Palm Beach County, Florida, students are making the best of unprecedented challenges.
They’re trying to elevate the events of the day for their classmates and then preserve those moments to the page. Their yearbooks will tell stories like none before them.
Few events for yearbooks to cover
Last year’s staff at least had from August through mid-March to capture the standard high school fare before COVID-19 sent students into homebound exile. Yearbooks didn’t cover many spring events, but they rarely do.
Still, production did hit snags. For one, Herff Jones, publisher of several local yearbooks, shut down its Kansas City production facility for more than a month.
When they were printed, distribution from schools was similarly interrupted. Because of campus closures, the books got handed out in school bus loops or delivered through the mail.
Atlantic High’s yearbook sponsor Ronneice White anticipated selling the overstock at end of the year events. That never happened. Rather than eat the loss – a book can go for up to $100 – she hit the road.
“I was meeting parents at Dunkin’ Donuts and Chick-fil-As trying to sell my last 20 copies,” White said.
While COVID-19 gobsmacked the class of 2020, the class of 2021 anticipated disruption, though students across the district say they were surprised by the scale.
How could everyone work on the yearbook?
Top among the obstacles at Suncoast High was figuring out how to put the whole book someplace online where students could work on it, said co-editor Lucy de Greling.
“Before it was on a server in just one room on campus,” de Greling said. Meanwhile, almost every member on staff was working from home, she said.
The bread and butter of yearbook content – school portraits – also posed challenges.
Picture day, at least for all but seniors, is typically something that happens during school hours, but only about a third of high schoolers are on campus. Most administrators devised plans that allowed students to walk in masked and sit for the photo with mask off, either by appointment or during a time window.
Studios promised formal frocks for all, assuring the uniform drapes they traditionally supplied would be freshly laundered and each piece limited to one person a day. At Suncoast, no change of clothes was necessary for the boys; they’d be suited with tuxes digitally.
Remote-learning students who declined to venture out to have their photos professionally taken were allowed to upload their own.
Selfies, or photos from home, have become integral to participating in and keeping a record of campus life.
“This year, it’s really a student book because it’s all their pictures,” said White, the Atlantic High yearbook sponsor. “We’re not having club photo days. We‘re having senior profiles. We enlarge their photos. Some wrote a profile, their name, where they’re going.”
Pages on COVID-19
Schools are filling pages by theme, many tied directly to the virus.
“We did a page on the masks. Show me your cellphones. What does your workspace look like? We went to get a class of one student at their desk and then we got a picture of someone at home,” White said. “Instead of a spread of those candids, we have pics of them outside, pics of them walking the dog.”
At Santaluces High School, the yearbook will have a “Dear Covid” page, where students share in words and pictures how the virus has changed their lives, editor Cara Li said.
Fitting with the nostalgia theme, the staff has asked students to submit treasured photos of their first day of kindergarten to couple with a snap taken on the first day of senior year.
The one drawback to relying on contributions is getting students to contribute.
Administrators and teachers can send out requests, but Denibal, the editor at Atlantic High, said it often comes down to how many students the yearbook staffers are connected to already, either through social media or in their phone contact lists.
No matter how popular you are, you can’t possibly reach everyone.
School life has not ground to a halt. Student government continues to operate amid the pandemic.
Suncoast’s Student Government President Madison Thomas won her spot last spring and has found the pandemic-era version of the job particularly frustrating – so many aspects of the job have been deleted.
No grad bash to plan, nor homecoming, nor prom.
“I spent a week planning a movie night, followed CDC guidelines, typed it up and planned. But it was rejected because there are no activities (allowed),” Thomas said. “We thought about a winter formal in our courtyard or the football field in January, but it just didn’t work out. It’s when ideas get rejected you realize you really can’t do anything.”
Students keep up the spirit
Some memories are being eked out despite restrictions. Thomas is among several student leaders at Suncoast who count spirit weeks among their successes.
The freshmen, sophomore, junior and senior classes battle weekly for spirit stick boasting rights.
One recent competition went down in the school’s vast courtyard and involved socially distanced “wacky” relay races; another leg involved using a sponge to empty one bucket of water and fill another.
The school also hosted courtyard karaoke and various themed dress-up days. For those not on campus, a hashtagged post on Instagram in full-themed attire became the next best thing.
Sometime mid-February, the seniors were celebrating a narrow victory over the freshman class, reported senior Nikayla Henry, one of the school’s two designated spirit leaders.
“Seeing kids enjoy each other’s company gave me joy,” said Henry, who interviewed for the job last spring, expecting a difficult year ahead.
It also gave the yearbook staff more source material to help fill about 300 pages.
At Santaluces, Li and her staff are charged with managing 180 pages. But she’s the only one attending school in person, and only for that one class.
“It’s the only way to get the yearbook done on time,” said Li, who faces an April deadline.
For now, students may be clinging to much smaller moments than they anticipated.
Thomas spent three years anticipating the school’s three-day bus tour of colleges, after seniors told her that was the don’t-miss event of high school. “I planned down to my roommates.”
Instead, her moment was having her senior photo taken in a makeshift studio at a hotel in September with her one permitted guest. “I just went with my mom. It only took like 10 minutes. It wasn’t that special, but I made it special.”
The yearbook editors agree they can’t capture everything. Heck, thanks to face masks, even facial expressions are covered, said Suncoast co-editor Julianna Debock.
“This is not the senior year editor position I saw myself fulfilling my freshman year,” Julianna said. The yearbook is no less important. “You’re going to be able to tell your kids, ‘This is what happened my senior year.’”