2021 Seniors: Overcoming pandemic setbacks to graduate on time


SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — It’s graduation month for students in KELOLAND, an accomplishment that is always worth celebrating, but even more so for the seniors who have spent the past three semesters dealing with constant challenges from the pandemic.

But will the impact in education mean fewer seniors getting across the stage with a diploma?

“It was definitely a weird experience at times, waking up and not going to school,” Roosevelt junior Madalyn Limesand said.

It would be rare to find a student who didn’t miss out on classroom time this school year.

“It crossed all lines and it didn’t matter who you were, you might have to miss 10 days, then you might have to come back to school for something and then guess what you’re a close contact,” Roosevelt Principal Tim Hazlett said.

“In October/November we were averaging about 200 kids out a day,” Roosevelt success coordinator Terry Malterre said.

Roosevelt High School added staff to support the influx of students needing virtual help.

“Within 24 hours anyone who had COVID or was a close contact was given a call, and a liaison, we can tutor you or give you a test,” Hazlett said.

“I took all the tests, I posted all the assignments, even though I was out,  I wasn’t missing anything,” Limesand said.

Roosevelt Junior Madalyn Limesand was out for two weeks when a family member had COVID.

“I had all my teacher supports so if there was something I didn’t understand, I could email them and they would help me,” Limesand said.

But online learning…

“You have to send an email and you have 30 other kids in that class so she has 30 other emails to read too you know,” Joe Foss senior Darwin Reyes said.

…Didn’t work the same for every student.

“When it hit and they switched over to remote learning it was a big blow for everyone, you go from seeing the same 7 teachers every day and having a conversation with them to not seeing them and them sending you stuff through email,” Reyes said.

Darwin Reyes was a Junior at Washington High school when the pandemic took him out of class last March.

“No motivation at all at home, especially when you have no school, the weather’s nice, you’ve got a job, you’re just making money,” Reyes said.

He started out his senior year three classes behind, but a switch to Joe Foss High School’s unique programming was the motivation he needed.

“It puts you in the real workplace, gets your hands dirty,” Reyes said.

“Giving them those sparks of interest and giving them opportunities in the community to put kind of a fire underneath them to get motivated and get done,” Joe Foss High School CTE and Community Outreach Coordinator Dawn Marie Johnson said.

Joe Foss is an alternative school offering internships and new courses every 30 days, giving some students a chance to catch up.

“When I got back here in the fall I started off with seven credits and now I’ve made it to 22,” Joe Foss senior Aaliyah Johnson said.

Aaliyah Johnson transferred to Joe Foss in the Spring of 2020 already behind.

“Then everything hit and I just had no motivation, there was no motivation coming, when I had the chance to sit at home and do nothing all day,” Johnson said.

But an internship drastically changed her perspective.

“It gave me a direct career path that I was really interested in taking, and that motivated me to get everything done and just get into what I needed to do to achieve that goal,” Johnson said.

Helping her not only catch up, but actually graduate early.

“It’s going to be hard, it’s a lot of hard work, but it’s honestly worth it because without it I wouldn’t be graduating this year,” Johnson said.

“It comes down to a point where its self motivation,” Reyes said. “It was the fact that high school is supposed to be 4 years, no harm to the super seniors, but I don’t want to be that kid.”  

A determination that has brought many Sioux Falls seniors through the challenges of the pandemic.

“Our seniors are going to graduate, they’re going to walk across the stage. There may be a few more that have a class to finish up, but really its just the compounding factor of it affecting every kid from 9-12,” Hazlett said.

While a few seniors will have to finish a missed class in summer school to get their diploma — the district is now working to make sure COVID-19 doesn’t impact graduation rates years down the road.

“Our 9th, 10th, and 11th grade students to make sure they continue to reach their graduation cohort, that will be the reason our enrollment for summer school will be higher, its not necessarily the seniors, our seniors are in pretty good shape,” Hayzlett said.

Roosevelt High School is expecting enrollment in its summer recovery program to double this year, largely with underclassmen catching up.

“When you miss a couple weeks of school here and there and if you’re out multiple times, those are the students that typically have gotten behind we just need to give them time to catch, that’s why summer school will be bigger than its been in previous years,” Malterre said.

But no matter how far behind a student may be, schools will work to make sure they eventually get their diploma.

“Graduating on time is important, but not the sole important thing, we just want them to finish high school,” Malterre said.

“We’re not going to give up on anyone to get done,” Hazlett said. “It leads to so many doors that can open, so many other opportunities, better-quality of life and all of the things we believe in in education.”

“Every teacher in this building wants you to be successful, you know, I feel like every teacher here doesn’t want to see you working 9 to 5 at a fast food joint after you leave high school, they want you to reach for the sky and not even the sky’s the limit here,” Reyes said.

While some students flourished in the full virtual academy this school year, Roosevelt’s principal says others fell far behind or completely lost contact with the school district while they were supposed to be learning from home. He says the school won’t give up trying to make contact with those students to help them catch up.

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