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Lessons from a difficult year

Dan England
For Craig Press
Moffat County senior Julia Chavez.

Emaleigh Papierski and her friends looked around nervously, knowing they were breaking the rules and praying no one would see them. This wasn’t like her, but she was desperate for a little rebellion.

They would meet on these days and…well, they weren’t meeting behind the school bleachers to smoke, drink or hang out with the bad boys (if those exist in Craig). They would run together.

At that point, they were a dismantled track team lost after their season was canceled by the coronavirus. The circumstances not only meant they couldn’t defend their state championship in the 200 relays. It meant they couldn’t see each other at all. They missed each other. They were best friends. Desperate times called for desperate measures. So they met, spaced apart and ran.



It says a lot about the pandemic that this would seem worthy of punishment, or even a minor tongue lashing, and it says a lot about Emaleigh that she would be nervous telling the paper about this, fretting about what could happen to her or her friends. She stayed home with her twin brother, Krece, and the two athletes drove their mother crazy with all their competitive games, begging her to decide, say, who was more ripped or who had the cleaner room. She never went out. She obeyed every rule.

Well, almost every one.

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Krece and Emaleigh Papierski will head their separate ways following the 2020-21 school year, as Krece will play baseball in North Dakota, while Emaleigh will run track in Colorado Springs.

“The only time we’d see each other was when we would run together,” Emaleigh said apologetically. “We weren’t supposed to, but we had to see each other.”

It’s doubtful that other classes will have a year like this year’s group of Moffat County High School seniors (at least we hope, right?). They started the year in what was called a hybrid, half in person, half at home, and it stayed that way most of the year. They will have a somewhat normal prom and graduation, and those are things last year’s class didn’t have. They are grateful for those. Many of them say they’ve learned to appreciate moments like those more.

Still, in some ways, their senior year was taken from them by a pandemic.

Homecoming had a football game but no bonfire or dance. Sports took place but with abbreviated schedules. A few chose not to go to school at all, taking classes online.

This year’s class learned a lot from this year. Mostly, they learned how to adjust: Maybe they didn’t have movies, hanging out or a homecoming dance. But they had texting, phone calls and maybe a rebellious run.

“It made me closer to my friends for sure,” Emaleigh said. “I don’t know what I’d do without them.”

Caught in between lame and following all the guidelines

Tara Brumblow spent many moments as a freshman thinking about her senior year. That was her year.

“The senior year is always the thing you are thinking about even when you’re a freshman,” Tara, a senior, said. “It’s a thing you hear about from everybody.”

Indeed, Joey Gates’ mom talked about it all the time.

“She always remembered her high school and how great a time she had,” Joey, a senior, said. “I was thinking I would have similar experiences having fun with my friends and everything.”

She felt bad, then, for last year’s class, as first prom was canceled, and then graduation was changed to a drive-by and a quick solo jaunt to get a degree, a necessary but heartbreaking change that left school officials in tears as they talked about the plans. When it became clear that COVID-19 wasn’t going to be easy to beat, she began to fear for her own year.

“I was afraid I wouldn’t have the prom my mom so fondly remembers,” Joey said.

Joey, like all seniors in this story, doesn’t blame the district for doing what officials had to do, even when homecoming celebrations were essentially canceled. Joey serves on the student council, and she remembers talking with her fellow officers if it was possible to do anything.

“It was really hard between making sure the students had fun and the liability for the high school,” she said. We wanted to plan something that wasn’t lame but followed all the guidelines. It was too difficult.”

Give me an L-O-N-E-L-Y!!

Tara struggled being alone, especially during the first few weeks of lockdown.

“I’m a cheerleader, if that tells you anything,” she said and laughed. “I like being around people and seeing everybody. I like getting out of the house. I had to stay home. That was definitely a change for me.”

Moffat County senior Tara Brumblow.

She learned that if she worked to stay in touch, it made her feel better.

“That isolating feeling was less that way,” she said.

In many ways, the seniors had to learn what it was like to be an adult: They had to make time for their friends instead of rely on school to fill that role for them. And like many adults, they struggled with keeping up their connections.

“The hardest thing was coming back to school and seeing your buddies and talking about things among themselves that I wasn’t a part of,” said Jack Doane, a senior. “There are inside jokes that I’m not a part of anymore.”

Jack, after all, had to work, and that took up much of his free time, so if he didn’t see his friends in school, it was hard to see them. Like adults, he found himself having to change up who he hung out with as a result.

“I”m tighter with other people than I would be if it hadn’t been for COVID,” Jack said. “I had to change up my friend group a little bit.”

Some students welcomed the time alone. Aunnika Hampton discovered she was a bigger introvert than she thought: She stayed virtual when other students went back to class. She also got to visit her grandparents and do her schoolwork from their house.

Moffat County senior Aunnika Hampton.

“I could do my schoolwork in the morning,” she said, “and go out fishing in the afternoon.”

Hampton in many ways enjoyed the pandemic, or at least the time alone that came with it. Her friends were online anyway.

“It was really fun actually,” she said. “I could make the most of what I wanted to do.”

Krece Papierski, Emaleigh’s twin, and his high school baseball team recently began practicing together after last season was canceled. They have a team that could make a run at state, and that’s exciting, but that wasn’t the reason for the joy they felt throwing the ball around.

“We were just so ecstatic to be back together with the bros,” Krece said.

No motivation

At first, the idea of hybrid learning excited Jack. He wouldn’t have to go to school every day.

“I was super lazy,” he said and laughed. “I was a fan of it. II won’t lie.”

But as the year dragged on, Jack, just like most office workers, realized the time off was more like purgatory instead of heaven.

Moffat County senior Jack Doane.

There were times that Julia Chavez struggled to get out of bed. She’d had to pull herself up a couple times — she was a fifth year senior who dealt with bullying and made a stop at the alternative school before going back last year and making straight As. But this was tough. She hated online school.

“I didn’t have motivation for anything, really,” Chavez said.

Hunter Smilanich, a senior, would sleep in on some days and “got lazy with his grades a little bit.”

Moffat County senior Hunter Smilanich.

“It was just easy when you weren’t doing anything all day,” he said. “I would go work out and then…online school. Why do it?”

Hunter, like the rest of us, discovered the importance of a routine. As it turns out, he was glad to have his senior year back once classes resumed.

“You’re seeing everyone and practicing every day,” Hunter said. “There’s a pace. Now you have to get up and get going. You can fill up your whole day. I’ll say this: The last couple of months I’ve been a lot better.”

Jack wonders if the year put him at a disadvantage, though when he says that, it seems as if he’s forgotten that most other high school seniors had the same kind of year.

“I feel stressed being back every day,” he said, “so I can’t imagine next year. I got used to being able to slouch for a day or two. But I think I should be all right. As long as I get right back into it, I should be OK.”

Rebecca Cruz had a hard time with the day-on, day-off pattern that came with hybrid learning. She had a twin brother, Daniel, to keep her company, but sometimes, because they had to spend so much time together, they got tired of each other.

Moffat County senior Rebecca Cruz.

“Going to school every other day was rough,” she said. “I didn’t do so well on the online learning. I didn’t like going home and not having help from my teacher.”

She missed school a lot more than she thought she would.

“It was like, ‘Yay, I don’t need school anymore,’” she said. “But after a bit, I really missed it.”

Chavez woke up one morning and decided staying in bed wasn’t who she was. She got herself a daily planner. She now calls it “the joy” of having a daily planner.

“I said that was enough,” she said. “You are better than this. I am a good accomplisher when I see what I have to do with my life.”

It was a year, at least

Seeing last year’s class go without prom or a graduation, probably the two defining moments of a senior year, braced Tara for some of her senior year being different, even not what she’d hoped when she dreamed about it as a freshman.

“I was definitely that if we don’t get that,” Tara said, “I’ll be disappointed. But if we do, I’ll be really excited.”

So the year was better than it could have been. All seniors in this story said something similar to that. At least they had texting.

“I’m thankful for technology in this day and age,” Tara said.

When the guidelines eased up a bit, Joey went on hikes with her friends.

Moffat County senior Joey Gates.

“Just being with the people you love makes everything worth it,” Gates said. “It did, I guess, feel like a senior year.”

Emaleigh and Krece fretted more about college than high school, as they thought the pandemic would affect their chances to play for a college. But Krece will play baseball at the University of Mary in North Dakota, and she will run track on scholarship at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs.

“I had accepted that my senior year would be different anyway,” Emaleigh said. “I don’t want to go to college the same way this last year has gone.”

Chavez also has plans beyond high school, as do many other seniors. Because of the pandemic, she entered a Youth of the Year contest for the Boys and Girls Club, where she works, and won a $2,500 scholarship. She’s also trying out to give a speech for this year’s graduation. She was in her fifth year, in a pandemic, and she graduated with money to go to college.

She wants to say to anyone in the audience that you can survive anything.

“I want to help kids who dropped out,” she said. “That’s my plan now.”


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