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Richmond-area graduates reflect on attending high school during the pandemic, look forward to the future
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Richmond-area graduates reflect on attending high school during the pandemic, look forward to the future

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The Class of 2021 is graduating into a world forever changed by the COVID-19 pandemic; so were students.

Some packed up their backpacks in March 2020 and have yet to go back; others returned last September. For the rest, it was a mix of hybrid learning days before returning to five days a week this past spring.

Regardless of whether they sat in a classroom this year, students navigated an entirely new world of school. Some covered the impacts of COVID-19 for their school newspaper; others stayed connected with their peers through virtual talent shows and reimagined children’s art workshops on Zoom.

Of the students who spoke to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, a handful aspire to become teachers, a career that faced immense stressors and pressure as the return to in-person learning pitted communities against each other, with some families demanding that their students return to classrooms and others demanding they learn from home.

All Richmond-area students are graduating in-person. Some already have, as graduation ceremonies began last week, with most wrapping up next week.

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Harold Aquino-Guzman, 18, George Wythe High School’s valedictorian, is attending Virginia Commonwealth University

Before COVID-19 forced all of his classes online, Harold Aquino-Guzman balanced high school with college summer courses, night classes and even split learning days.

By his sophomore year, Harold was taking a full day of Advanced Placement classes at George Wythe High School and a full load of college courses.

By his senior year, he was virtually enrolled in Virginia Commonwealth University classes with college juniors and seniors.

Having all his classes online this year took some weight off Harold’s shoulders, as he didn’t have to navigate public transportation to go from Reynolds Community College to George Wythe and then to VCU, all in a day.

When Harold graduates next week, he will receive his fourth diploma, after receiving three associates’ degrees from Reynolds Community College. He also enrolled in classes at John Tyler Community College, Longwood University and VCU.

Harold is the current George Wythe class president and 2021 valedictorian.

With his three degrees, Harold is entering VCU this fall having completed 112 credits, making him a college senior. He will major in mathematics for his final year of undergraduate education.

For Harold, mathematics has always come naturally. Once he understands the concept before him, “it flows like a river,” he said.

“But I think the main reason I chose math was for my mentor, Mr. [Kakim] Fung,” Harold said. “He’s basically been helping me out since the eighth grade to get through the whole process of completing three associate degrees.”

Fung, who not only taught Harold math but English and history at George Wythe, had first mentored Harold’s older sister, who also earned college degrees while in high school.

His sister, Rocio Aquino-Guzman, was the George Wythe valedictorian in 2018. She recently graduated from VCU with a master’s of teaching in English education.

Harold hopes to be back at RPS soon, as a teacher, maybe even at George Wythe.

“I want to come back to RPS and see if I can give a student the same opportunity that was given to me while I was here,” Harold said.

With only one year of college to complete, Harold intends to apply for RTR, previously known as the Richmond Teacher Residency program, a graduate program at VCU. In partnership with RPS, graduate students are placed in a Richmond city school after a year of residency.

While juggling being both a high school and college student, Harold never forgot about his peers.

During the pandemic, Harold, and the entire George Wythe High student cabinet and some teachers, put on monthly virtual talent shows to keep everyone connected despite not going to school each day.

Chesterfield County Public Schools’ James River High Center for Leadership & International Relations graduate Mary Grace Walsh, 17, is attending the University of Notre Dame

Mary Grace Walsh provided a space for younger children to connect through art during the pandemic.

Enrolled in the Center for Leadership & International Relations at James River High, she worked with Better2gether RVA to hold virtual art workshops for immunocompromised children for her senior capstone.

A nonprofit, Better2gether is a provider of family support services for children with medically complex illnesses.

“I think part of why I love art is the community of it and the connection you get from creating together,” said Mary Grace, who attended a weekly pottery class for years, describing it as a safe space. “While I am not a very talented artist, I love art.”

Working with roughly 50 kids from 15 families, Mary Grace held five virtual art workshops where she taught watercolors, collages, acrylics and sculptures. Mary Grace drove all around to deliver supplies to her students before each workshop.

Many of the families have expressed interest in Mary Grace continuing the virtual program even as she attends the University of Notre Dame in Indiana next year.

After adjusting to college life, Mary Grace hopes to start up the workshops again.

“I care deeply about it and the beauty of a COVID capstone is it’s all set up for me to continue remotely,” Mary Grace said.

As a theology major, Mary Grace anticipates either double majoring in psychology, anthropology or sociology with a minor in Spanish.

While nervous for her incoming rigorous classes, the pandemic influenced which ones interested Mary Grace, including a Molecular Basis of Disease class. After becoming fascinated with how disease can spread and how people balance their mental and emotional health during periods of isolation, Mary Grace is considering this class for her science and technology requirement.

With a community writing class, Mary Grace hopes it will connect her with service opportunities to allow her to continue to work with her surrounding community, as she did with her art workshops.

Highland Springs graduate Jaylen Fitzgerald, 18, will study business management at Old Dominion University

When Jaylen Fitzgerald received his high school diploma from Highland Springs High School on Tuesday, it was his first time seeing some of his teachers and friends in 15 months.

Jaylen did not return to high school this past spring when Henrico County Public Schools initiated a staggered return to in-person learning. Other than not being able to enjoy a typical senior year experience, Jaylen didn’t mind finishing out high school virtually.

He’s excited to attend Old Dominion University and dive right into the college experience, like attending classes, making new friends and possibly being a walk-on on the basketball team.

Having played basketball since he was 4 years old and three years as a point guard for Highland Springs, Jaylen would like to continue in college. If he doesn’t become a walk-on, he will join an intramural team.

Having earned an associate’s degree from Reynolds Community College, Jaylen plans to graduate from ODU in two years with his bachelor’s in business management and then attend law school.

“I want to study child custody [law],” Jaylen said. “I feel like I can help. People are going through that struggle every day.”

Jaylen took college courses at Highland Springs. His favorites were a history class, accounting, biology and political science. He enjoyed the material and the passion his teachers brought to teaching the classes.

This summer, before heading to Norfolk for college, Jaylen is working at Richmond International Airport, where he loads cargo off planes in the early mornings.

Richmond Public Schools’ Armstrong High School graduate Indeya Mealy, 18, will attend Mary Baldwin University

Being a high schooler during COVID-19 was depressing, Indeya Mealy recalls. In a blink of an eye, she was unable to go back to the building she’s felt she’s spent her whole life in.

And so, after being stuck behind a computer screen for nearly 15 months to finish out high school, and having both the senior breakfast and trip canceled, Indeya did not want to graduate from Armstrong High School virtually.

She is getting to say goodbye, one final time, to her teachers, friends and remaining Armstrong staff, on Tuesday.

“We’ve been here for four years and so, being able to see all our friends and graduate [together] is really special,” Indeya said.

Upon graduating, she is attending Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, where she plans to study nursing.

Indeya’s mother was a nurse before her daughter was born but stopped working to take care of Indeya. And so, 18 years later, Indeya wants to pick up where her mom left off. She wants to become a registered nurse and hopefully work with children as well as gain hospital experience.

Besides studying nursing, Indeya said she is excited to make new friends and hopefully join the college dance team.

As an Armstrong student, Indeya was a majorette during her first two years of high school. Her favorite high school memory is her first performance as a majorette at a football game during her freshman year.

Luke Reeder, 18, a James River High School Center for Leadership & International Relations graduate, is attending Virginia Commonwealth University

As a sports reporter for The Rapid Press, James River High’s newspaper, Luke Reeder tackled covering sports in a COVID-19 landscape.

No fans were allowed on the bleachers at the games. The momentum wasn’t the same without them. With his reporting, Luke hoped not only to keep students up to date on their peer’s athletics but also to create a greater sense of school spirit.

Luke also reported on other aspects of the pandemic, including the return to school. Chesterfield County Public Schools first sent students back in waves for hybrid learning before sending students back five days a week, beginning with elementary students first.

While the reporting brought on challenges, such as not interviewing students in person, Luke found a greater interest in watching virtual School Board meetings and connected more with his teachers.

“A lot of close relationships were built with teachers,” Luke said. “One of the first times our teachers opened up to us and I think it helped us grow closer to them during the year.”

In Chesterfield, Luke interns with WRWK 93.9, a volunteer-based radio station, where he creates show ideas as well as helps out with broadcasts. He’s working on a show to break down newspaper headlines, deciding whether they are newsworthy or not.

Having a passion for sports journalism, Luke is attending Virginia Commonwealth University this fall to study mass communications and broadcast journalism.

As a VCU student, Luke said he is excited to move onto campus, attend sports games and meet many new people from diverse backgrounds. College, Luke said, is where your friend groups solidify for the rest of your life.

Carlee Harding, 18, a graduate of Mechanicsville High School in Hanover County, is attending Christopher Newport University

Carlee Harding is looking forward to continuing her passion for teaching as an incoming elementary education student at Christopher Newport University in Newport News.

During her last two years at Mechanicsville High, Carlee participated in the Teachers for Tomorrow program offered by Hanover County Public Schools. While last year it was cut short after schools closed, Carlee completed the full program this year.

Offered at multiple high schools, Teachers for Tomorrow lets students explore teaching as a potential career.

This past year, Carlee shadowed a first-grade class at Battlefield Elementary School for 90 minutes every morning from January through May. She would read books to the class and take small groups of the students into the hallway, where she taught mini-lessons or read to them.

Having four younger cousins influenced Carlee’s interest in becoming an elementary school teacher.

“Baby-sitting them throughout the years and just being around them has made me love younger students and drew me towards the first or second grade,” Carlee said.

James River High graduate Irelyn Rogan, 18, who was enrolled in the Center for Leadership & International Relations, is attending Marymount University

Growing up in Long Island, N.Y., Irelyn Rogan was destined to play lacrosse. Her dad played in high school and, by the time she was 6 years old, she had a lacrosse stick in her hand. A few years later, she was her team’s goalie, just like her dad.

“At a very young age, I knew lacrosse was a passion,” said Irelyn, who dreamed of playing the sport in college.

At Marymount University in Arlington, the James River High graduate not only will major in elementary education but also will be on the women’s lacrosse team, as a goalie. Also, as a Spirit of Service Scholar at Marymount, Irelyn will participate in volunteer opportunities, something that she values. She hopes to work with children and those who face being homeless in the Washington, D.C., area.

For the past year, Irelyn has run “The Humans of James River” podcast series as her senior capstone. The podcast series allows students and staff members to share their personal stories, including ones of bullying, eating disorders, body image disorders and sexual assault.

“I’m very grateful that I was able to run this platform for the last year; it’s changed my life. It definitely has given me new perspectives and new opportunities, and I’ve just really grown as a person,” Irelyn said.

She is excited to see what happens with it next year.

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