A group of Asian graduates

Five years ago, when Maeve Sanford-Kelly dreamed about high school, she thought the most pressing issue would be blending students from the two local middle schools into one community at Walter Johnson High.

It was an age-old anxiety as students make the jump from middle to high school.

Students from two schools — Tilden Middle and North Bethesda Middle — attend Walter Johnson in Bethesda, creating a new, larger ecosystem.

Sanford-Kelly, probably like many of her peers, thought that transition could be the most challenging moment they all faced together.

Then, during her sophomore year, the COVID-19 pandemic hit — a previously unimaginable global crisis — shuttering schools across the country in March 2020. In Montgomery County, public schools stayed closed for a year as students took virtual classes, missing proms and other milestones, extracurriculars, team sports and nearly all normal face-to-face interactions with their peers.

Now seniors, the roughly 11,000 MCPS students graduating this month had the largest chunk of their high school years interrupted by the pandemic. Only their freshman year was “normal,” a standard that seems so far in the rearview mirror now that it seems a hazy memory, some said.

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This year’s seniors say that while they feel the pandemic shaped their high school careers, it wasn’t always for the worst.

They learned how to stay connected in a difficult, disconnected world. They had the time and space to reckon with and have conversations about social justice issues they might otherwise have shied away from. They formed what felt like deeper and more meaningful relationships and learned to appreciate those relationships and social interactions more.

“I think I really realized how much people matter,” Sanford-Kelly said in an interview on Wednesday, just a few hours after her graduation ceremony at Walter Johnson. “I love being around people. I love sharing my life with other people. And I think that losing that period of time really reinforced the value of that and the extent to which that shapes who you are.”

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Eileen Chen, who moved to Montgomery County from New York when she was 8 and will graduate from Richard Montgomery High in Rockville on June 9, said she grew closer with her family and spent more time leading student groups, learning about the importance of effective communication.

“Those are the kinds of skills you take with you that make everything easier,” Chen said.

She, too, said she noticed the difference in how she and her friends interacted and built relationships while out of the classroom.

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Some groups splintered. Others grew closer. Some friendships were tested when, during the height of the pandemic, anti-Asian rhetoric related to the pandemic increased. Chen, who is Asian, said one of her close friends began peddling racist tropes such as the idea that Asian people “should go back to your country” or that COVID-19 started because “some stupid Asian person ate a bat.”

“I knew it was obviously going to happen, but I didn’t know to the extent it would occur,” she said. “It was a lot, on top of everything else.”

Still, the pandemic brought her a group of friends with whom she formed a “pod” — meaning they only visited with each other in-person — and helped her find new activities to try, like video games.

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She plans to stay in touch with those friends when she begins classes at the University of Maryland in the fall, and will visit her pandemic puppy, an almost-2-year-old Yorkie/poodle mix, often at her family’s home.

Sanford-Kelly, who is the daughter of Montgomery County Delegate Ariana Kelly and will attend Scripps College in California in the fall, said the first few weeks of school closures felt like time was “frozen.” Even when the virtual model shifted from just emotional check-ins with teachers to class work resuming, the rigor wasn’t the same, she said, and “it felt like the last three months of school were how the last two weeks were.”

The summer of 2020 brought another issue into focus across the country: policing and racial justice. For the first time, Sanford-Kelly said, it felt like real and honest conversations were happening in her social and academic circles.

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“It’s a lot easier to push away and brush it under the rug when you are living a full life,” she said. “So when we’re in this moment, where you aren’t really able to, it forces people to find time to do some of that exploration and reflection.”

The part-time return to schools in the spring of 2021, and then the resumption of a more normal schedule in the fall of this school year was critical, she said. Getting to end the year with her peers, unlike the experiences of some previous classes whose graduations were virtual, brings necessary closure to this chapter.

This year’s seniors will be forever bound by the trials they faced, together and apart, Sanford-Kelly said.

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“When we look at the differences between different generations and how they react to things that happen in the world, it’s based on what was happening when you were a teenager or a young adult,” she said. “So, I think that having sort of grown up in this world having this experience is special for us and will continue to impact how we really think and how we assess what’s important.”

MCPS’ graduations began Wednesday and will continue through June 14. The full schedule can be found here.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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