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High school, college seniors have overcome and excelled in face of pandemic’s upheaval

As the school year is drawing to a close, we repeatedly are reminded of how public school education, especially high school has been transformed locally and across the state and nation because of COVID-19. Be proud of the class of 2021. They met disappointment with grace, and triumphed.
Anyone who’s graduated in the last year and a half — college, high school or heck, even kindergarten — has undoubtedly been cheated. 
Coronavirus undermined or cancelled the traditions they had expected to mark their rites of passage to greater independence and the next phase of their lives.
It wasn’t just about the loss of ceremonies such as graduation or prom. It was the isolation from friends and teachers, the scarcity of bake sales and group service projects, the frustrations of dropped Internet connections and unfamiliar equipment. Even after in-person classes resumed, students’ experiences fell far short of their expectations, as they struggled to hear classmates and teachers muffled by masks, and faced constant reminders to stay “socially distant.”
Over the course of the past two school years, the members of the graduating classes of 2021 have learned lessons never intended to be included in any end-of-year testing or classroom curriculum.
Lessons about perseverance. Personal responsibility. Resourcefulness. Adaptability. Social interaction. Loss. Fear. Human nature.
Add to that the anxiety over the ground many students lost while schools were in upheaval — and their increased level of doubt over how prepared they were to take the next step, whether it was toward the employment marketplace or a new chapter of higher-level academia.
Put it all together, and it’s clear: Last year’s seniors had every reason to be disappointed. Even as they acknowledged the efforts of educators, parents and the community to keep them focused on learning and to celebrate their accomplishments, the finale to their educations was woefully short on pomp and circumstance. Their experience was more akin to being shoved out the door in a manner that could be described, with great specificity, as unceremonious.
In both college and high school, the class of 2021 is having a more traditional experience. Most students returned to campus. There were sporting events, musical performances, even parties.
Graduation takes on a special meaning this year, as those seniors graduating do so after a good deal of remote learning, mask wearing, and limited, sometimes non-existent, personal interaction with other students and teachers.
Those being handed diplomas on the graduation stage will have earned them in a learning environment unlike any other.
Between their junior and senior years, the class of 2021 made a total shift from traditional classrooms to remote learning and then back to classrooms, in some cases more than once. Their schedules and routines were interrupted time and again; lives turned upside down at school and at home. And, yet they persevered  – and excelled.
We can only hope that theirs is the last class to undergo such upheaval, and that by the time schools open again in the fall, we have reached a point of “normalcy” that allows masks to be left behind in a drawer and face-to-face interactions to once again take place in the hallways.
In addition to area high schools, May is also graduation time for colleges across the country, where graduating seniors also saw dramatic changes in their traditional college campus experiences as a result of the year-long fight against COVID.
It is remarkable, then, that so many of you stand on the brink of claiming victory. And though the cheers may not ring so loud in your ears as you expected,  many of the people who love and support you are proud of your perseverance. Your communities are also proud of the way so many of you found time for service, or worked part-time (or even full time) while juggling class schedules.
Future classes may have to struggle through pandemics — but you blazed the path, adapting to challenges few people foresaw. As a group, you met those challenges with ingenuity and grace beyond your years.
Class of 2021, you have been deprived of experiences that define a quintessential American senior year. But know this: There will never be another class like yours.
Whether you are donning the cap and gown to say goodbye to your high school, or a member of a graduating college class, we salute you for completing the journey in difficult times. Throw those caps high; you’ve earned the right.
Elizabethton High seniors will graduate Saturday at 10 a.m. at Citizens Bank Stadium. Hampton, Cloudland, Unaka and Happy Valley High seniors will graduate in ceremonies Friday evening at their respective schools.