SANTA MARIA, Calif. -- Santa Maria Valley seniors are preparing to graduate this week after facing and overcoming many challenges over the past 15 months during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It has been a little difficult," said Righetti High School senior Audrey Herrera. "Seniors have lost out on a lot of opportunities, and fun memories that we have been looking forward to senior year and stuff, and so that has been very difficult."
Four years ago, no one could have predicted what awaited the Class of 2021 when they first walked onto campus in August 2017.
"It's definitely been different," said Pioneer Valley senior Joseph Galicinao. "It's definitely been a different journey than I expected when I was a freshman."
While the first two-and-a-half years may have been normal, it was in mid-March 2020 when their lives, as well as the rest of the world, changed dramatically when the pandemic started.
"When school was first stopped, it was supposed to be only two weeks," said Galicinao. "Then it became one month, then two months. I thought this is going to be big in 30 or 40 years."
Indeed the pandemic was history in the making, forcing all schools to quickly transition to distance learning.
"When everything changed to online, it's difficult and it's hard and some people just don't understand it," said Herrera. "You have a loss of motivation to do things and just you're in your bed, you're in your pajamas and you're just sitting at a screen all day. Most kids don't like doing that."
Not only was online learning a difficult challenge for many, so too was the sudden isolation and confinement the pandemic forced on students.
"Our senior class is very social," said Herrera. "With Covid, you weren't able to do that, especially this being our senior year, and our last time being with some of these people as they go off to college, it's really sad we didn't get to do that and have that socialization."
However, over the course of time, something perhaps unexpected occurred for many of these students.
"I think kids and students really didn't realize we could do what we are capable of doing," said Herrera. "I think Covid has shown us that through these hard times, we can still get through it and I think we've all accomplished a lot and I think we've learned a lot of skills that we didn't know that we had."
Educators point out the pandemic has been the ultimate learning experience for students, forcing them to quickly adapt to a changing world.
"Everything from learning new technology to adjusting their schedule to learning how to connect with their teachers differently," said Pioneer Valley principal Shanda Herrera, who is also Audrey Herrera's mother. "All the programs that everyone has asked them to learn. The way we communicate with our families. Just everything. I feel like they've had to endure a lot, but I think they're going to be stronger because it."
Righetti principal Karen Rotondi agreed and noted the pandemic has required these young adults to begin adulthood a little earlier than expected.
"What we've done is taken kids who are still kids and trust them into being independent, having self-discipline, taking responsibility, having accountability that is usually reserved for adults," said Rotondi. "They have gained some tools to put into their life toolbox, things like resilience, strength, perseverance to get them through life's challenges as they move forward."
Later this week, all four Santa Maria Joint Union High School Districts will hold graduation ceremonies.
Delta High School is scheduled for Thursday at 2 p.m. at Santa Maria High School. Righetti High School will hold its graduation on Thursday at 7 p.m.
On Friday, Pioneer Valley High School will begin commencement at 10 a.m., followed by Santa Maria High School at 1 p.m.
With just a couple of days left in their high school careers, seniors are amazed at what they have accomplished despite everything they have endured.
"We were able to adapt and overcome just to get through it," said Pioneer Valley senior Lizeth Preciado. We're stronger because of it and we made a lot of good connections throughout it and I think we're more prepared."
"I think we're very determined seniors and very hardworking students, a great class," said Audrey Herrera. "I think we've just shown that Covid did not define us, it helped us to get where we are today."
Administrators emphasize this unique group of students have earned their diplomas that hard way, and they leave high school ready for the next phase of their life.
"I want everyone to know out in the community, that our seniors have persevered," said Rotondi. "They've really kept a positive attitude and they didn't give up and it's very easy to give up in a situation like this and they did not. They're ready and they're ready to move forward and I think they're very excited about moving on to college, moving on to work, we have some joining the military, and so, they're going to be great out in the world."
"Covid is not the only thing that defines them," said Shanda Herrera. "They have proven themselves that they can be successful no matter what is thrown at them."