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In Parkland, Another Senior Year Ends In Turmoil. But This Time, 'It's Not Just Us'

Dani Pendergast for NPR

Friday, March 13, was the last time Alexandra Sullivan saw her fellow yearbook staffers in person.

"We were trying to get as many pictures of people as possible 'cause we knew we wouldn't be able to take any more," Sullivan, 18, says.

Like most U.S. public school students, Sullivan is learning from home now. And much like her lessons, her work on the yearbook continues.

Sullivan is the yearbook profiles editor at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. She's one of 10 seniors who were also on staff two years ago, when a gunman opened fire at their school. Back then, she and her classmates had to adapt to an unimaginable tragedy. Now, they have to adapt again – this time, to the pandemic.

"This book has to get done and we'll do whatever we have to do to finish it," she says, "which is exactly how we approached the '18 book."

Senior Caitlynn Tibbetts, the yearbook's co-editor-in-chief, was also on staff when the shooting happened. She says there's a collective grief among seniors over what their class — which has already lost so much — is losing now. They won't be able to dance together at prom, or walk across the stage at graduation.

"This class especially has gotten screwed over so much through the past four years," Tibbetts, 18, says. "The last two months were supposed to be the best, and they were supposed to make up for everything that we've been through. And it's really hard on us to kind of just watch it all disappear."

The last two months were ... supposed to make up for everything that we've been through. And it's really hard on us to kind of just watch it all disappear.

Amid all the uncertainty, she says, one thing is clear: The yearbook must get done, and it must get to students.

High school yearbooks are like time capsules. They record theater productions, which teams went to state finals, who was voted most likely to succeed.

And when a news event makes history – leaving a mark on students and society – it's the yearbook's job to document it. At Stoneman Douglas, that's meant changing plans just weeks before the yearbook is due.

Yearbook advisor Sarah Lerner says, "Having done one under unthinkable circumstances before, I hate to say that we're kind of, you know, used to it, but, for the seniors on staff, we are."

Two years ago, after the shooting, the yearbook staff pivoted to include remembrances of the victims. Tibbetts and Sullivan stepped up to help write them, and anything else that was needed at the last minute, while other yearbook staffers took time to attend funerals.

This year, they're making room for two new spreads about the pandemic.

"One of them is more of a factual-based one, how it's affected our community, including businesses," Tibbetts explains. "The other spread is focused on the effect it's had on us personally, both with online schooling and especially with seniors."

Logistically, putting the yearbook together and writing the new sections has been a challenge. Unlike 2018, they can't be in the same room with each other to finish the design.

"We have to social distance and our parents wouldn't let us go out," Tibbetts says.

They mainly rely on a group chat with everyone on the staff. "It can get hectic," Tibbetts says, "especially when it's all happening at like 12 a.m."

Lerner and her students missed the original deadline to finish the book, on April 6. But the printer, Walsworth, says the company is being flexible with Stoneman Douglas and other yearbook staffs across the country. Lerner says she's aiming to get the book in by the end of April.

Once the printed copies come back, more than 1,200 books will somehow have to be distributed to students. Lerner has some ideas for how to do that safely.

However, there's one important yearbook tradition they may not be able to save.

"We may not actually get to sign books this year," Lerner says. And that's been hard to accept.

"As a teacher, I really like to get my students to sign my book, you know, and I like to sign theirs and I like to see the kids carrying them around at school."

Lerner says she's sad that might not happen this year. But at least this time, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School aren't on their own.

"Unlike the 2018 books, this situation is not unique to us," she says. "So there's comfort in knowing that all staffs are going through the same issue. It's not just us."

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM

Caitie Switalski
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