For high school seniors around Frederick County, the COVID-19 pandemic has created plenty of questions and uncertainty.
But the pandemic helped Oakdale High School senior Spencer Buckwalter decide on the next phase of his life.
After a senior year spent in virtual and then hybrid learning, Buckwalter was leery of more virtual classes in college.
So he enlisted in the U.S. Army as a cyber operations specialist. He’ll leave July 19 for training at Missouri’s Fort Leonard Wood.
As he waited in line Friday morning with his fellow seniors to march into the school’s football stadium for the graduation ceremony, Buckwalter said he could see how hybrid school could be good.
But for a group of kids who had all grown up going to class in person, “it was just weird,” he said.
Still, he thinks the pandemic has helped teach him and his peers to take things as they come and try to make the best of negative experiences.
For Buckwalter and his classmates, Friday was the first time they had all been in one place in more than a year.
Principal Lisa Smith celebrated seeing all of her seniors in one place.
“We are here together, as a senior class, together, finally,” Smith said.
Senior speaker Aubrey Schaffer noted that they arrived at the school as freshmen 1,349 days before.
And while their senior year hadn’t been what they’d expected, the school would carry on as part of them.
“Once a Bear, always a Bear,” Schaffer said.
Seniors Isabella Johnson and Kaleah Wetherholt spent the year in virtual training.
Both took courses at Frederick Community College during their senior year, getting some English and statistics classes out of the way before they head to college in the fall.
Johnson said part of her wanted to do hybrid classes, but she didn’t want to do it if it wouldn’t be more of a normal setup than it was.
The two girls and their best friends all live near each other, so they were able to stay in touch during the pandemic. But the pandemic helped her learn to appreciate the friends she has even more, she said.
Online school was a little closer to a college atmosphere, with more flexibility to work at your own pace, Wetherholt said.
But the seniors missed Friday night football games, homecoming and other major senior milestones.
They didn’t even get a usual first or last day of school, Wetherholt said.
But even with all the losses, they face a bright future ahead of them, Board of Education member Liz Barrett told the graduates.
“There is so much promise and hope in this stadium today,” she said.