Some members of the class of 2021 never stepped inside of a classroom during their senior years, but that doesn't mean they didn't pick up some lessons along the way.
Woodside and Menlo-Atherton high schoolers faced a set of challenges unique to students in a pandemic. They faced fears about family members contracting the virus, felt loneliness while sheltering in place, and relief about a return to normalcy after COVID-19 vaccinations. As they finished their high school careers, The Almanac asked a few local teens to reflect on how they've changed over the last 14 months, what they've accomplished and what they're looking forward to after graduation.
Here are some of their stories.
Menlo-Atherton High School senior Tyler Chan, 17, of Menlo Park said he learned the value of friendships during lockdown and has become more forthright about his emotions.
"I didn't talk much about how I felt; I kept to myself," he said about himself before the pandemic. "Mental health is something I dealt with alone."
Then he faced a deep, monthlong depression during the winter in which he barely left his bedroom.
"I felt really alone," he said. "It encapsulates how quarantine was for me and a lot of other people. At the time, it felt like I was really alone in it when in reality everyone else in the country was feeling this as well. Looking back, it definitely is a moment when all this tension and worry caught up to me."
Chan said he pushed himself to talk to friends and family to open up and get help when he was feeling overwhelmed.
He's since discovered new hobbies, such as playing electric guitar and spike ball, and acquired a gaming laptop. He also managed working part time at Fleet Feet, a running gear store in Menlo Park, while running track until he suffered a foot injury.
Three words that encapsulate his senior year? "Bittersweet, short-lived, unforgettable," he said.
A particularly weird memory he'll have of the school year is taking a ceramics class virtually. It was challenging to touch his computer with hands dirty with clay, he said.
Chan said he was never really worried about getting sick with COVID-19 but was always concerned about other family members, especially his grandpa. He was initially anxious about his mom, a flight attendant for Delta Air Lines, returning to work after an injury because of the risk of catching COVID-19 on a crowded plane.
"I think now she's getting a little bit less nervous about it," he said. "The thought of going on a plane during a pandemic is really strange to think about. Luckily we were really careful about disinfecting our house, so that sort of eased our stress and we were able to calm down."
Now that he's received his two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, Chan plans to spend time with friends before he starts at Lewis & Clark College in Portland in the fall. There, he'll share a dorm room with a friend. Chan said he plans to study biology in hopes of someday becoming a physical therapist.
"Being a little more independent is going to be exciting," Chan said. "With COVID, we've all been with our families for so long, I'm just ready to go."
Last March, Sathvik Nori, 18, of Atherton expected about two weeks of remote learning before students could return to Menlo-Atherton's hallways. It wasn't until more than 12 months later that he would reunite with his classmates and teachers on campus again.
"I gained an appreciation for how events can turn our world upside down," said Nori, who served as student trustee for the Sequoia Union High School District's governing board. The Almanac spoke with Nori on his final day of high school classes.
Nori, who was editor-in-chief of the M-A Chronicle, attended countless virtual board meetings, learning about how the public education system functions.
"One good thing that came out of the pandemic is that people are a lot more engaged; attendance (at school board meetings) was unprecedented this entire year," said Nori, who will attend Stanford University this fall. "Hopefully that sticks around."
Nori said he learned "so much in process about how the local school board works."
"Almost every meeting there was something controversial (being discussed)," he said. Ever since the district's decision to move to pass/fail grading last spring, it's been contentious, he said. "The sheer amount of learning loss that has happened because of the pandemic, the trauma they (students) faced this year, is a challenge for our district."
Nori believes the district's reopening of classrooms in the spring happened a "little bit too late."
"I saw from my friends just how unengaged they were in distance learning," he said. "More than school, they missed the social interaction. People were really hurting. Sitting in front of a screen for six to seven hours a day is clearly not healthy. ... There was generally a sense of, 'What's the point of online school and stuff?'"
He formed a social bubble with friends after it became clear COVID-19 wasn't just "going to go away" and he would hang out with them in backyards until they were vaccinated.
"I wondered, 'Am I just never going to see (other) people again?' For the class of 2020 that just happened," he said.
M-A's in-person graduation last week gave his class the closure last year's missed, he noted.
Looking back, he won't forget the feeling that returning to school was worthwhile if only for the connection with other students just from eating lunch together for the first time in a year.
Beyond the fall, Nori isn't sure what's ahead for him. He sometimes imagines himself attending medical school or pursuing politics. He said he could even see himself running for a seat on the district's school board.
A swirl of purples, pinks, oranges, deep blue, sunflowers, and tentacles adorn what was once a nondescript trash bin on Woodside High School's campus. The artist is Naomi Perez, a recent graduate of the high school.
Perez, 18, an activist, softball player and resident of the Belle Haven neighborhood in Menlo Park, will take on a role that means a lot to her this fall: first generation college student. The recent Woodside High graduate will attend University of Redlands in Southern California this fall to study English and studio art. She dreams of one day designing shoes for Nike.
Perez was initially introduced to graffiti art during visits to the Mission District in San Francisco with her mom. She co-founded the Woodside Bin Project her sophomore year and recently painted a Black Lives Matter trash bin for the school. She said she uses her art as a platform for her passion for social justice and to express pride in her Latina and Salvadoran identity.
"I really just wanted to kind of like not let that (the Black Lives Matter) movement die out, at least on our campus," she said. "And so that people are reminded that police brutality and racism are still things that we're fighting against."
Perez, who has lived in Belle Haven for 15 years, said the pandemic has brought out the inequities that exist in Menlo Park. Perez's mom is helping to try to reduce these differences and works with the local nonprofit Belle Haven Action, an advocacy group that has offered free COVID-19 testing and vaccination clinics.
"You can see how Belle Haven fell short," she said. "We didn't have the same resources. It took a while for there to finally be (COVID-19) testing. That's where that community outreach was really important. Everybody deserves a chance to have access to all of those things. ... Among all of these neighbors are just hardworking, dedicated people, who are fighting to better their neighborhood."
Perez describes her senior year as a "huge roller coaster" ride.
"I can't say it was all bad," she said, noting she discovered meditation and other outlets for channeling her stress, something she was too busy to focus on before the shelter-in-place order.
She picked up hobbies like learning to solve a Rubik's Cube, skateboarding and football. She's grown closer to her 12-year-old twin brothers and they painted a collage together on a household door.
Distance learning added flexibility to her schedule, allowing her to enroll in more community college courses and work part time at In-N-Out to save money for college (it's her first job, so she's only known how to work in a pandemic with a mask and gloves on).
The college application process was entirely new to her.
"Doing everything online was kind of difficult," she said. "It was time-consuming and at times stressful. When filling out FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), it was so difficult and confusing I was on a Zoom call for almost four and half hours straight just trying to get it done."
Perez said she feels a lot of pressure to succeed as the first in her family to go to college, but she also is excited to create a pathway for her brothers and younger family members.
She looks forward to stepping out of her comfort zone and meeting other artists.
"At first I didn't think it (college) was going to be in person (because of the pandemic)," she said. "Moving away from home the first time is a little scary. Part of me was hoping we were going to be distancing for a little bit. But at the same time, I know that this is all part of the process."
Her advice to first generation students is to always be proud of who you are and that your hard work will eventually pay off. She said she knows she comes from a low-income neighborhood, but she's proud of being from "Belle Haven, Menlo Park."
"I went to a predominantly white middle school Corte Madera School," she said. "I was one of 10 students of color and it was a big adjustment for me. Then going to a high school that was more diverse, I became proud of where I came from. A lot of times you can feel overshadowed or isolated where you may not identify or connect with others."
While most teens might be watching Netflix on their computers at home, Woodside High School graduate Danny Salinger Brown brought the movie theater experience to people's backyards during the pandemic, starting BackyardFilms last summer.
Salinger Brown, 18, a Menlo Park resident and valedictorian, is heading to University of California at Santa Barbara in the fall, where he will major in global studies. He was challenged by his friend's cousin to create a business. Salinger Brown and his co-founder, Connor Spackman, have hosted viewings once or twice a week, and at one point they were doing five or six showings a week. He did learn it is "very difficult to run a business just with a couple people," especially at the beginning when you need to put a lot of unpaid time in before earning any money.
During the pandemic, he said he worried his dad, Lloyd Brown, would contract COVID-19, so a drop in cases and his dad's vaccination made him feel more at ease.
His dad is a pediatrician for Palo Alto Medical Foundation and ran the organization's respiratory clinics during the pandemic, where he would go even before there was a testing network for the virus.
"And he was seeing people who may have had COVID," Salinger Brown said.
Now, for the first time in over a year and a half, he can hug his grandparents who live in Half Moon Bay. The first time he saw his friends without masks on it felt "a little weird for an hour or so."
"During the pandemic I've gained an ingrained fear of COVID," Salinger Brown said. "It's been massively reduced."
A Peninsula Athletic League Scholar athlete, playing tennis and basketball this spring, he said he hopes to work in the sports industry in the future. His dream job is to be commissioner of the NBA.
In the nearer term, he looks forward to trips to San Diego and Hawaii after a year at home.
A naturally social person, finishing off the year interacting with classmates on stage and making jokes as one of two masters of ceremonies at M-A's graduation was the perfect, albeit strange, way for Fiona Fulton-Moskowitz to cap off a year of isolation.
"After almost two years of not seeing any of my classmates and then suddenly seeing them all together at graduation, it felt incredibly strange," she said after the event. "In terms of speaking at the ceremony, I was not even nervous because my mind has been unable to process that I am graduating high school."
Fulton-Moskowitz, 18, of Menlo Park has her sights set on making short films; she will study media culture and communications at NYU in spring 2022, starting in Paris. She will take community college classes and continue working part-time tutoring and nannying jobs until then.
She said she found online learning to be a challenge. Distractions abounded, with two very loud dogs, five guinea pigs and her parents at home. She also remembers the first day of distance learning when her science teacher left the Zoom meeting because of Internet issues, so the class sat in silence for 30 minutes.
"There was the temptation to search a new tab on your computer or watch YouTube," she said.
Fulton-Moskowitz says her anxiety was a lot worse at times during the pandemic and she got less sleep. During the winter she wondered: "When will this end? When will life go back to normal? What will normal even look like?"
She's become more self-reliant in terms of her physical and mental state.
"I hold myself accountable for more things as well as using my newfound independence to start exploring the world," she said. This includes hikes at Water Dog Lake in Belmont and trips to Fort Funston in San Francisco with her dogs.
"I'm very, very lucky to live in an area where the weather is nice," she said. "I can go outside. I don't live in a cramped apartment with crying 5-year-olds. I have been lucky to be bored. People are facing eviction, struggling to make ends meet with jobs or being unemployed."
She has become a lot closer to her best friend, although they will be on opposite sides of the country. They have matured more than they would have if it were not for the pandemic, she said.
"Lockdown took away distractions of unnecessary relationships, poor mental health, and more things that would have prevented us from becoming young adults," she said.
Fulton-Moskowitz found her college application process less stressful with more students opting to skip the SAT and ACT. Applications were writing-heavy this year and she felt like it was a good way to express her personality.
What matters most to her now is that her family is healthy and fully vaccinated.
Cris Villa has mostly lived an independent life not out of choice, but by necessity.
When Villa's family immigrated to the U.S. around 2007, his father left the household, leaving him, his mom and two sisters to fend for themselves.
Academically, Villa and his older sister Itzel were also on their own. He enrolled at Willow Oaks School for first grade and had to adapt quickly to the language and culture of the school without much guidance from his parents.
"My mom and my dad never even graduated," he said. "They never got to high school, so they weren't able to help in any way. I had to do my own thing and my older sister helped a little bit, too."
And growing up as the only male in a cramped household, Villa found it could get a little tedious at home with his mom and two sisters no brothers to share common interests and no father figure to teach him life lessons about manhood.
"It was so boring," he said.
Living in a one bedroom apartment in East Palo Alto, sharing a space with his sisters, didn't help him socially, he said. He was embarrassed to bring friends over and let them see how he lived. And his undocumented status not only stripped him of an internship opportunity (it required a Social Security number), but caused him and his family live in fear of deportation from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), especially during Donald Trump's presidency.
"When we heard ICE was coming to California my mom told me not to go out a lot," he said.
But Villa's love for learning and ability to adapt a "tunnel vision" to focus on his dreams — of working in aerospace, living up to his mom's expectations, driving a nice sports car, living in a bigger home and becoming a U.S. citizen — pushed him to persevere.
"I just thought of my future," he said. "I don't want my kids to have to go through all my problems that I went through. I don't want money to be an issue. And I want them to have papers here."
Towards middle school, after a brief period of indifference towards his education, Villa said he quickly picked up the slack and started seeing A's and B's on his report card. At Menlo-Atherton High School, Villa found teachers who were willing to bond with the students, like his coding instructor Chris Rubin.
Villa said he sought a community at Live In Peace, an East Palo Alto-based nonprofit that provides academic resources for students like him, and at his local boxing gym — meeting people who had the same love for the the sport and sharing passion with kids by training them.
During the pandemic, some of those community spaces were cut off. And as a house cleaner, his mom was no longer able to do her job.
But, Villa said he was still able to thrive and maintain his grades during remote learning. In class and on Zoom, he said he never shied away from seeking help.
"I'll unmute myself and just ask questions if I need it," he said. "I'm not afraid to ask."
And fortunately for his family, some of his mom's more sympathetic clients regularly sent paychecks and sometimes offered bonuses during the coronavirus lockdown.
Villa now lives in San Jose with his siblings, mom and stepfather. During the summer, Villa plans to go back to his boxing gym and earn some extra cash by working with his dad in plumbing.
He will be attending University of California at Merced, in the fall, pursuing a major in engineering.
"Man, it's a blessing," he said. "I think I deserve it. I put a lot of hard work into all this."