Degrees of separation-Class of 2020 graduates during coronavirus crisis


Anna Weisenbach recalls sitting in her senior AP biology class at Pocahontas High School in January watching the movie Contagion.

She couldn’t have guessed that, months later, she and the rest of the world might be living it.

“’Don’t worry; this will never happen,’” Anna remembers her teacher saying about the 2011 thriller, which involves a pandemic caused by a quickly spreading deadly virus transmitted by respiratory droplets, not unlike COVID-19.

But it did happen. And so much has happened since last summer when Anna was one of 43 wide-eyed Arkansas high school juniors on a whirlwind adventure to Washington, D.C., for the 2019 Electric Cooperative Youth Tour.

It was an extraordinary trip leading up to an anything-but-ordinary senior year. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, schools were abruptly shuttered early, causing students to not only miss their classmates due to social distancing, but miss out on long-awaited rites of passage like prom and graduation.

Neither they nor we — their cooperative chaperones — could have predicted that would be the last Youth Tour group to enjoy the nation’s capital for a while; the 2020 Youth Tour was canceled due to health concerns.

With no Youth Tour this year, we’re taking the opportunity to catch up with some of last year’s delegates to discuss how the pandemic affected the Class of 2020.

Anna Weisenbach, Clay County Electric Cooperative

Anna Weisenbach – Whitney Vassar Photography

All seniors look forward to graduation, none more so than Anna. After all, she was named one of six valedictorians in her class of about 150 students.

It had been a longtime goal of hers, as she wrote in her valedictory speech: “I would like to thank my brother for being the valedictorian of his class because that’s what inspired me to choose to work toward being the valedictorian of mine.”

She says, “I was really excited to make a speech in front of my community.”

But she wouldn’t deliver it on stage due to safety and social-distancing measures. Rather, her speech went direct to video.

As the future University of Central Arkansas student describes her non-traditional high school graduation, “We had our diplomas presented during time slots where we could bring up to five people and take pictures. Our school also made a video with the speeches … and with slides with every graduate’s name and picture.”

Sign of the times: In addition to diplomas, Anna says, they received protective face masks that said “Senior.”

Sawyer Goodrum, South Central Arkansas Electric Cooperative

Sawyer Goodrum

Arkadelphia High School’s graduation was really moving.Literally. It was drive-through.

Sawyer Goodrum says, “We basically made it up on the fly. We all got in a line with our cars, and we drove up to the little stage place, got out, got our diplomas and went home.” To stop virus spread, gathering places like restaurants were closed, and traditional socializing was discouraged.

Still, Sawyer, who will be attending Southern Arkansas University, says his atypical senior year ultimately taught him a valuable lesson.

“I wish that I was able to do a walkout and get to walk through the school next to all my classmates,” he says. “I also wish that I could have had an actual senior trip. But all of this has really put it in perspective that I need to cherish every moment and really just make the best out of everything.”

Genesis Marshall, Craighead Electric Cooperative

Genesis Marshall

Recalling her last day at Brookland High School, Genesis Marshall says it was “Friday, March 13th. That day in class, we had discussed the possibility of them making spring break a week longer.

“I would have never thought that one-week extension would have turned into months.” Long months.

As for what she has missed out on Genesis includes, “having those last few classes with my peers and my teachers,” “not performing with my friends at our last concert,” “not being able to spend the last summer before college with all of my friends” and “not being able to have the closure of a graduation.”

As of press time, there still has not been closure, she says: “We are not certain of how or when we will have a graduation of some sort, but some dates later in the summer have been suggested.”

Still, Marshall, who was named Arkansas’ Youth Leadership Council representative at Youth Tour and got to enjoy a second trip to Washington, D.C., and a trip to New Orleans, still had a pretty special year.

“I made some amazing senior year memories with both my Youth Tour group and my Youth Leadership Council family,” Genesis says. “Seeing how they have persevered throughout this pandemic has been truly inspiring. Even in the darkest of times, they find the silver linings. I am thankful to have been able to make those memories and to have served as Arkansas’ 2019-2020 Youth Leadership Council representative.”

Raichel Frye, Southwest Arkansas Electric Cooperative

Raichel Frye

The pandemic didn’t just affect Raichel Frye of Foreman academically and socially. It affected her financially, too.

“I was a waitress at a local restaurant,” she says. “We had to close, and I was without a job for a while. I make somewhat of my car payment; my parents help me. … So, it kind of hurt me a little bit.”

Raichel has since started a new job at Walmart where, she says, “I wear a mask every day; I’m getting used to it.”

As for graduation, Raichel and her Foreman High School classmates will get two. There was a drive-through version in May, and a more traditional ceremony is scheduled this month.

The drive-through ceremony “was nice. They were thoughtful; and it was very respectful the way they did it for us, and that they were thinking of us,” Raichel says. “But I wasn’t able to sit with my classmates that I’ve grown up with and gone through everything with.

“It was kind of bittersweet.”

So getting to celebrate with her small class of about 40 friends will just be sweet for Raichel, who will be studying at Cossatot Community College of the University of Arkansas.

“Our class is very close. We’re all not handling this too well being separated,” she says, adding that they don’t just know each other, “We know everybody’s sister, brother, mom, dad, grandparent; we know them all in our class!”

Irene Huang, Carroll Electric Cooperative

Irene Huang

As Irene Huang’s school — Bentonville High School — was closing, her parents were doing everything possible to keep their business from closing.

Irene’s family owns Hunan Manor restaurant in Fayetteville.

She says, “They had to quickly adjust . … Of course, we closed down our dine-in, and even closed down our lobby in general for a period of time. My parents purchased lots of PPE for all the employees to wear and put new rules in place for work.

“It has been a stressful time with everyone with lots of changes in our lifestyles. However, we’re all in it together, and I know we will get through it.”

While she missed out on senior activities, she says the social-distancing downtime did have benefits: “I’ve had much more free time at home to spend with my family and pursue other hobbies I have.”

And she’ll have even more free time. Not only has her graduation been postponed until this month, her classes at Washington University in St. Louis have been pushed back from the end of August to mid-September.

Austin Hill, Woodruff Electric Cooperative

Austin Hill

Austin Hill of Wynne had his graduation pictured in his mind.

“To have my family see me walk across the stage was going to be a big moment for me. I was expecting to show my family that I did it and for them to be able to say, ‘Congratulations Austin!’ and see the smiles on their faces.

“I can only imagine how that would have been.”

Austin anticipates that the Wynne High School commencement, rescheduled for this month, won’t be quite the same.

“I know for sure it will be different — not being able to really mingle or to just hug your teachers, take pictures with your classmates. That’s going to be so different.”

Hill says the pandemic has taught him to adjust, a skill that will surely serve him when he attends Arkansas State University Mid-South in West Memphis.

“We just had to adapt to it and go with the flow,” he says. “Whatever life gives us, we just have to receive it the best way possible.”

Allee Southerland, First Electric Cooperative

Allee Southerland

Due to illness, Allee Southerland of Paron missed the end of January and all of February at Perryville High School.

So Southerland, president of her class, was thrilled to be returning in March.

“I had looked forward to going back to school and spending my last days with friends. I was able to go back for one week, not knowing that would be my last week in high school, ever!” she says, adding, “I think about how I never got to say a real farewell to everything I have known for the past 13 years.”

But she has other things to think about now. Like what to say in her salutatorian speech that she’ll give at her rescheduled graduation this month.

She says, “Because of COVID, I haven’t even begun my speech. I have been at a loss for words — not much can explain the way all of us seniors feel.”

After graduation, she’ll be headed to Arkansas Tech University. And she’ll bring with her a new outlook.

“The pandemic has caused me to truly stop and soak in every moment because you never know when you experience your last!”

Know a Class of 2022 student who wants to take a trip of a lifetime to Washington, D.C., next summer? Keep an eye out for Youth Tour 2021 information in Arkansas Living or contact your local electric cooperative early next year.