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High schoolers mourn the milestones missed due to the COVID-19 pandemic

  • Hanover High School senior Zofia Zerphy, 18, of Hartland livened up her spring break by creating creating a different international travel destination each day while at home in isolation with her parents Michael Zerphy and Peggy Stone. Each night she decorated the house for the next day’s city - Paris, Mumbai, Moscow, and others - then completed the feeling of place with meals, music and movies. Zerphy stands for a portrait with her parents in Hartland, Vt., Wednesday, April 29, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Hanover High School senior Zofia Zerphy, 18, of Hartland, Vt., hugs her dog Bennie Wednesday, April 29, 2020. The corona virus pandemic interrupted Zerphy’s participation as a director in Hanover High School’s student theater program, and she has adapted by finding plays written with the online video conference platform Zoom in mind. She has held auditions and is rehearsing online with plans to stream a performance in four installments. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Liam Hemmerling, of Enfield, N.H., who is a senior at Mascoma Valley Regional High School, does his day's assigned school work at home on Wednesday, April 29, 2020. New Hampshire school buildings have been shuttered since the middle of March due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley NEws — Jennifer Hauck

  • Mascoma Valley Regional High School senior Liam Hemmerling plays basketball with his brothers Connor, left, and Aidan, both 11, at their home in Enfield, N.H., on Wednesday, April 29, 2020. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/2/2020 9:47:11 PM
Modified: 5/2/2020 9:47:09 PM

As the United States began to take the novel coronavirus more seriously, Zofia Zerphy’s final year of high school steadily shrank.

First, the Hanover High School senior’s planned trip to Colombia, part of the school’s “March Intensive” program of learning beyond the classroom, was canceled. Then school was dismissed, replaced by remote learning. Then an April vacation plan to visit some of the colleges that had accepted her was foreclosed upon.

Instead, Zerphy, 18, is home with her parents in Hartland, trying to stay busy and grieving the events she won’t experience on the way to graduation. Just as she and hundreds of other Upper Valley seniors were preparing to shed the strictures and schedules of high school, they are more tightly bound than ever.

“We’re ready to move on, to go to college and have a new experience,” Zerphy said. “That’s very blurry for us right now.”

Seniors from several Upper Valley high schools talked with the Valley News recently about home confinement, activities they’re missing and their feelings about graduation and the future. In an uneasy time, they stand on the threshold of the post-COVID-19 world and are already feeling its effects.

What they’ve missed

Every other year, juniors and seniors in French 3 and 4 at Mascoma Valley Regional High School go to France during the April break. This would have been Tallis Diehn’s year, a culmination of four years studying French.

“It’s not like years wasted or anything, because I’ve learned a lot of the language,” said Diehn, 17, of Enfield.

But to miss that capstone experience, a trip of 10 days, half in the south of France, half in Paris, is frustrating.

Other seniors are missing vital classroom time. Ricky Faucher, 18, of Windsor, is in the automotive program at Hartford Area Career and Technology Center. Usually, 30 to 40 minutes of classroom time are followed by 90 minutes or more of turning wrenches.

Now, “we have online classes twice a week, and then we have videos that we have to watch and then basically an online quiz,” Faucher said.

He loves the Hartford program, but he’s concerned he’s missing the heart of it.

“It’s definitely changed the whole way the Hartford tech center is supposed to work,” said Micah Lockhart, 18, of Woodstock, who is in the center’s natural resources program. “I’d say it’s definitely harder for me, because I’m a hands-on learner.”

Carolyn North, 18, of Hartford, is missing her final season of lacrosse at Hartford High School. A captain, she was looking forward to returning to a team that lost in last year’s state semifinals.

“It was going to be a really fun year for our team,” North said. She and her teammates have been staying in touch, performing weekly challenges through the internet — lip-syncing and stick tricks, for example. “We’re trying to stay connected, but it’s not the same.”

Zerphy was set to co-direct a production of Theresa Rebeck’s Sunday on the Rocks. Auditions had to be held online, then the production was canceled and the play doesn’t lend itself to a production via videoconference. A public folder of plays written to be performed on the videoconferencing app Zoom has furnished some options for an ensemble piece.

“It feels good because we finally have forward movement,” Zerphy said. “Nothing was happening, and we’re pretty goal-oriented people.”

Rites of passage

Though they are all taking classes online, nearly all of the seniors said they have hours of free time and that what they miss most about school is the social interaction. They communicate with friends through FaceTime and other apps, but it’s not the same.

Their classmates are the people they would share rituals of senior year with: prom, a class trip and graduation.

“For as much as I complain about school, sometimes you don’t know how important it is to your life and structure until it’s not there,” said Emily Trage, 18, of Thetford.

“Definitely, seeing my friends every day at lunch,” said Liam Hemmerling, 17, of Enfield, who is president of his class at Mascoma.

Zerphy said some of her friends had already bought prom dresses, and she took the unusual step of making one after the event itself had been canceled, calling it “my way to have something prom-associated in this year when prom isn’t happening.”

Some of the seniors said they went to prom last year, and that while they would miss this year’s, it was nothing compared to graduation. Schools are postponing, or trying to make other arrangements for commencement exercises, but most are up in the air.

“Graduation day, walking across the stage with everyone cheering, definitely that is the main one I’ll miss the most,” Faucher said.

Thetford Academy “is trying for some way for us to have some kind of graduation,” Trage said. “I think that’s the thing I’m most hung up on.”

Other rituals, often specific to schools, will be lost.

“Typically, the high school seniors walk in a parade around the hallway of the different schools in the district,” said Diehn, who saw the parades every year as he moved through Mascoma schools and looked forward to being on the other end of it. Without the ceremonies, “I’m not getting the same level of closure about high school that all the other people that have gone before me have,” he said.

Hemmerling noted that “there’s been a great outpouring of support from the community,” including a Facebook page on which community members can “adopt” a Mascoma senior to cheer them on.

The coronavirus has also canceled Thetford Academy’s Operation Day’s Work, an annual event that sends high school students out into the community, usually in early May, to perform chores and raise $10,000 for a nonprofit.

Trage is co-leading this year’s effort with junior Eloise Van Meter. Donations are to go to Help Kids India, a Newbury, Vt., nonprofit that supports five small schools for poor children in southern India. Trage and other students are looking for ways to raise money through donations.

“We’re kind of full speed ahead right now,” Trage said., though they can’t guarantee that their effort will raise the full $10,000. “At this point, I think it’s going to be whatever we can raise by this summer.”

An uncertain future

The economic toll taken by the coronavirus is immense. This year’s seniors will step into the wider world in circumstances that are unprecedented and unpredictable. Graduates planning to attend college in the fall don’t know whether their schools will have reopened their campuses.

“How are they going to teach acting on Zoom classes?” asked Zerphy, who plans to study theater and hasn’t decided where she’ll attend.

She and her friends are talking about whether to defer college for a year, but the other options students who take a gap year generally follow, whether travel or working to earn money for college, might not be open either.

But the prospect of starting college from home, online, has little appeal.

“I’ve heard some schools moving to online classes for next year,” said Hemmerling, who plans to study mechanical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in central Massachusetts. “Having that online to start with, I mean, I have no clue.”

Adara Greenstein, 17, of West Lebanon, plans to attend the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, to study marine science.

“As far as I know, yes, it’s still going on as planned,” Greenstein said.

Faucher plans to start work as a mechanic after school, but without more hands-on training from the automotive program in Hartford, he’s worried he won’t have the skills to keep a job.

By contrast, Lockhart, the Woodstock resident studying natural resources, said he feels his work situation is secure. He’s already been serving as an apprentice to a master plumber and hopes to continue his education so he can rise to that level himself.

“I think I’m ready,” Lockhart said. “I think the path I’m on, the goals I’ve set for myself, I think I can still accomplish those goals.”

Lemons and lemonade

Unable to travel, Zerphy was not looking forward to her April break. “I already have too much time on my hands,” she said. “I don’t know what to do.”

In addition to taking long walks, her family had been cooking together, making dishes they hadn’t tried before. For vacation week, “I tried to just, like, expand on that idea,” she said.

Monday morning, her parents woke up to find the dining room decorated to look like Paris, including an elaborate paper cutout of the city’s skyline and handmade airline tickets.

“I kind of, like, planned that we would go to a different country every day,” Zerphy said.

Paris was followed by Mumbai, Greece, Moscow, Cancun and Thailand, with themed decor, cuisine, music and movies. They called it a “coronacation.”

If making the best of a bad situation is a hallmark of adulthood, Zerphy is not alone among her fellow Upper Valley seniors in stepping toward a wider perspective.

“I definitely think that our generation will have a long-term effect from this,” said Faucher, who’s waiting out the coronavirus at his girlfriend’s mother’s house in Cavendish, Vt. He fears there will be a second wave of illness, and he said he’s more concerned about people with compromised immune systems and the elderly than he is about his own prospects.

“A lot of people are feeling bad for the seniors,” Hemmerling said. “We’re going to get through it. That’s all we can do is take it one step at a time.”

“It’s just a crazy thing to be happening for all of us,” said Samantha Rizzo, 18, of Enfield, who plans to attend the University of New Hampshire in the fall to study musical theater. “We won’t get to celebrate our final year. ... It’s been a hard time, but I think we’ll all get through it.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.

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