Mason reflects and rebuilds upon anniversary of initial school closing

Shravani Page | Staff Writer

Abby Waechter | Staff Writer

 On March 13, 2020, Mason High School closed its doors to students and teachers, promising a quick and safe return after Governor Mike DeWine announced a state-wide shutdown. What the community and most of the world did not know, however, is that it would be the start to an ongoing pandemic that changed the way people would live and interact indefinitely.

In the days that followed DeWine’s announcement, schools around the state began to halt in-person learning. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic progressed, it became evident that students would not be returning until conditions improved. Restaurants, gyms and businesses deemed “non-essential” were closed in an attempt to flatten the curve of cases, and the shelves of grocery stores were left bare as people rushed to stock up on toilet paper and hand sanitizer. The 2019-2020 school year ended virtually: classes were taught via Zoom, final exams were canceled, Advanced Placement (AP) exams were altered to an online format, and seniors received their diplomas at home through decorated school bus deliveries. 

As the 2020-2021 school year approached, Mason administrators released plans that would require students and staff to wear masks throughout the school day and separate themselves via plexiglass at lunch. Remote Learning days became common in order to prevent contact-traced quarantines, but have since been terminated after state protocols changed. Vaccines are currently available for the elderly, those with health risks and essential workers such as teachers, and it appears as if there is hope for a “return to normalcy.” 

Recalling the Last Moments of Normalcy

Guidance Counselor and Girls Track and Field Coach Tony Affatato has a passion for “connecting with people outside,” a passion that manifested itself in his decision to come back to school this year. He recalls March 12 as being an “extremely sad experience,” as the Girls Track and Field Team was just a week away from the start of their outdoor season when Affatato was informed about the lockdown.

“I’ll remember what I said to them forever,” Affatato said. “On Thursday I said, ‘Well, I’ll probably see you Saturday, we just won’t practice tomorrow.’ Then the start of our season got moved to April 1, then May 1…and when we didn’t come back then, I knew the season was over.” 

Affatato said he “never envisioned in a million years that when [he] said goodbye to them on March 11, that [he would] never see a lot of them ever again.” Although Affatato saw a few seniors at the drive-by graduation hosted at the end of the year, he missed many key moments that the spring season typically brings, from connecting with his team to “seeing them finally turn their uniforms in.”

On March 11, Senior Faith Tang had just finished running Indoor Championships and was looking forward to the start of the outdoor season. Like Affatato, Tang also thought lockdown would be more of a minor setback, and she chose to train at home.

“We didn’t find out that the season was going to happen until the end of April,” Tang said. “My junior season was going to be my first season where I was going to run throughout the entire season and I was really disappointed to find out that wasn’t going to happen.”

Like many students, athletes were ready for the spring sports season to start. Baseball, Softball, Lacrosse, Boys Tennis and Boys Volleyball anticipated their returns and chances to represent Mason in the Greater Miami Conference (GMC) and other post-season competitions. For athletes hoping to further their careers in college, the spring season remained crucial to building their profile as well as for completing the recruitment process.

Tang admitted she hadn’t “considered running at the collegiate level until [her] sophomore year.” Tang had college offers coming in spring 2020 as she was hoping to meet the qualification times for the collegiate level during her junior season.

“Junior year is typically the time for prime performance for most students,” Tang said. “The best times and performance usually comes from junior year. In my case, all the track athletes lost that junior season and colleges didn’t even have a single time from me so it’s hard for me to show them that I can run the standards that they want.” 

Like many aspiring students, Tang felt the complications of this setback as the light shining upon her goals started to dim as the pandemic set in. Tang felt she had missed numerous opportunities to showcase her full potential for her future. But despite this, athletes remained hopeful thanks to the understanding of college coaches. Tang is thankful to her teammates for their support and wishes she had gotten more time with the seniors last season.

“Track is more individual-based, but I’m sad that we missed out the team aspect of track,” Tang said. You don’t realize how much sports are based on your team because sometimes we get lost in individual performance, especially with track. But losing just a year with the people that I love the most in high school is sad because I’m never going to get to see some of them again.”

Trending: Quarantined Behaviors 

During the period of time that people spent confined to their homes, a series of trends emerged. High schoolers, not being able to see their friends in person, flocked to social media, specifically the appTiktok, to spend their free time. Whipped Coffee, Zoom reunions, and COVID puppies became some of the most popular trends that emerged from the pandemic. 

Sophomore Ian Burke and his family saw the lockdown as the perfect time to adopt the furry friend that they had been anticipating to embrace. Burke said that the quarantine created an environment where his family could watch, train, and connect with an addition that would require a lot of attention. 

“Quarantine took away a lot of the stress that normally comes with adopting a puppy,” Burke said. “If not for the quarantine, we wouldn’t have had the same amount of time to train and connect with Finn.” 

The pandemic created many scarcities including those of disinfectant products such as wipes and hand sanitizer, and other necessities like toilet paper. Kroger employee and senior Emily Wolfe described her experience as “hectic” when hundreds of people rushed to the shelves of their nearby grocery stores for these scarce items. 

“It was almost apocalyptic to see empty shelves everyday,” Wolfe said. “Customers would come in daily to check if we had toilet paper or hand sanitizer and there would still be nothing on the shelves.” 

A Levy Poses a Hurdle Amidst a Forthcoming Closure 

The week leading up to the quarantine was essential to Mason City Schools as a levy would determine the future of transportation, athletics and certain courses. The administration strived to ensure that the school stayed open through the election so that the levy was not postponed. 

As the week progressed, in-person parent teacher conferences were cancelled and administrators were called into meetings with school and district officials in order to determine if the doors to Mason City schools could remain open. Banking and Investments teacher Jennifer Striker said that the week leading up to March 13 required teachers to be flexible in their courses knowing that the school could be shut down at any time. 

“I received an email from Bobby Dodd indicating that parent teacher conferences had been postponed and instead of that there would be an entire building meeting,” Striker said. “[Mr. Dodd] told us that we would be closed starting that Friday, and that we would be getting updates throughout the week as to what was happening. Ultimately, we didn’t make it until Friday.” 

Unemployed and Unsure: COVID-19 Protocol Affects Thousands 

Nationwide closures of non-essential establishments such as amusement parks, movie theaters and waterparks left hundreds of people unemployed. Due to COVID-19 protocols released at the beginning of May, amusement parks were to remain closed in order to enforce social distancing. This protocol, however, left many seasonal employees at Kings Island and waterparks unemployed and unsure of how to make money. Senior Alison Tobergate said that it was difficult for her to grasp the uncertainties of her summer job. 

“At first, it was really hard not being able to make money and get the hours that I was used to,” Tobergate said. “For a long time, I didn’t even know the future of my job, I didn’t know if I should look elsewhere or if I should just stick with it and hope that Kings Island would open again.” 

Similarly, newly hired summer lifeguards were faced with uncertainty of whether or not their summer jobs would be honored as public pools were a questionable part of protocol. Junior Alison Fries said that as a new hire at the Mason Community Center, she was concerned about whether or not she would have a job. 

“For a long time, there weren’t any plans on how to reopen a public pool, and my manager didn’t know if we would even open,” Fries said. “Eventually a plan allowed us to reopen with limited capacities, but also new jobs arose within the company to be a ‘Gate Attendant’ who would clean every two hours and keep track of or limit the attendants.” 

Ensuring A Safe Return 

In June, the administration of Mason City Schools had their first in-person meeting since the start of the pandemic where they established that the students who were willing could come back to school in-person. Once the decision was made, the administration knew that an uneasy road laid ahead of them and that a potential spike in cases or a statement from the Governor could shut down the schools before they were opened again. Despite the risks, the administration moved forward with their plans and started researching and creating the protocols that would be needed to be set in place prior to opening again in August. Assistant Principal Brandon Rompies said that the most challenging aspects they faced when planning to reopen were lunches and class sizes. 

“We didn’t know if some of the classrooms could even fit enough students after everything was separated,” Rompies said. “I spent a day walking around with a tape measure literally measuring out rooms to make sure we could just fit people in them.” 

The plans for reopening were made with little direction from state officials as there were no other schools in-person at the time the plans were created. On paper, the plans to reopen looked promising, however, the administration did not know if they would work since there was no prior data to schools returning since the beginning of the pandemic. Assistant Principal Dan Distel said that planning for an in-person return was difficult because the administration had to consider all of the factors that would ensure a safe return for everyone in the building.

“We didn’t know how plans were going to be implemented once kids were in the building,” Distel said. “Lunch where kids remove their masks, the bell to bell transitions, the adapt and adjust groups, we really didn’t know how that would work until kids were here.” 

Keeping the 2020-2021 School Year Flexible

This school year has been one of many twists and turns for junior Bekah Botkin. With Botkin contracting COVID in late September and dealing with further quarantines throughout the month of November, Botkin felt her “situation becoming very stressful” as she found difficulty catching up with work, especially as it is her junior year.

“I know the school is trying really hard to make things work, but I still had trouble staying on track throughout the semester,” Botkin said. “I know teachers are trying their best to give us a lot of grace and keep us together.”

Botkin said the school did a great job to “keep everyone’s spirits up and keep continuing the year” as she, like many students, anticipated Mason schools closing down early into the 20-21 school year. One of the ways Mason created a more positive school environment for Botkin was through the Remote Learning Experience (RLE) days every Wednesday.

“I thought that those were really helpful when I was in school,” Botkin said. “Based on my experience and what I’ve heard my friends talk about, that was a day in the middle of the week where they could just have a “breather.” Botkin, like many other students, was disappointed to see RLE days removed toward the beginning of second semester.

“Students needed this day to catch up and take a moment to relax,” Botkin said. “I think most of the kids just utilize the remote learning day as a day to not be in a classroom and super anxious, they use it to just get back into the flow of life.”

Similarly, as a teacher, Striker enjoyed the RLE days because it allowed her to spend more time in class with her students to talk through material. Striker recalled “celebrating” after the institution of the online learning days because it lessened the number of her students that were quarantined due to contact traces. 

“I really enjoyed the Remote Learning Days,” Striker said. “I could teach them what they needed to know in class, but then the RLE days allowed them to apply the material and catch up on concepts they didn’t understand.”

Vaccines Represent A Hopeful Return to Normalcy

Although many students are still waiting in line to get the COVID-19 vaccine, one of Mason’s students already got the opportunity to get hers.

Senior Ananya Bhavanishankar went into the clinic with her grandma who was getting the vaccine. 

Bhavanishankar “didn’t expect to get it at all” since her grandma had a fixed appointment. But Bhavanishankar was “shocked to find out they had leftovers.”

“They asked me if I was interested in getting one,” Bhavanishankar said. “So, since I was eighteen, I told them I was okay with it. When I got my shot, I couldn’t feel anything because my excitement was overwhelming at that time.”

Getting the vaccine gave “[Bhavanishankar] a hope that things could finally start getting back to normal again.” As an online student, Bhavanishankar said she misses her friends, teacher, and school overall. It’s important to her that people get the vaccine so “everyone can keep each other safe.”

“It’s important to be self aware and look out for others,” Bhavanishankar said. “I chose to get the vaccine so I could protect myself and others as well. There are many people prone to the virus due to underlying conditions who have difficulty leading ‘normal lives.’ It’s important to look out for them as well.”

Bhavanishankar remains hopeful that things will start returning back to normal. She is due for her second dose on March 18 and “can’t wait for everyone to get it and start seeing everyone again.”

Graphics by Aadrija Biswas