How COVID-19 expanded this yearbook's meaning

CHEYENNE — The award-winning yearbook staff at Cheyenne’s East High had a plan for documenting this school year – and a global pandemic wasn’t a part of it.

“At the beginning of the year, I was super excited to cover track,” said Lana Novotny, a sophomore who helped design East’s yearbook spread. She took a photography course last year, and gravitated toward the yearbook and journalism course offered at East because she “wants to tell all sides to other people’s stories.”

But by the time Lana and her classmates turned in the yearbook page proofs last month, they had all unexpectedly taken part in documenting tougher moments than the athletic victories and school dances they’d envisioned.

In an effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19, which has so far killed more than 87,000 Americans, including ten Wyomingites, East joined nearly all other schools across the country and transitioned to remote learning for the remainder of the year.

The pandemic has made it an unforgettable year for East – one future generations will be able to catch a glimpse of in the school yearbook, which has almost sold out and will be released Wednesday. 

And for some of the yearbook staff who put it together, those roughly 200 pages are a testament to how preserving the personal vignettes of a school year turned upside down expanded their worlds.

“It changed my perspective on the memories we should be capturing,” said Lana, who created a yearbook page featuring students’ mixed opinions of the remote instruction. “High school isn’t just about the happy, amazing moments. It’s also about the moments when we struggle. I feel like a yearbook should cover that, as well.”

The path to chronicling East’s pandemic-related struggles started sometime in early March, when members of the yearbook staff were gearing up to document a litany of upcoming statewide competitions, and other cherished end-of-year traditions.

When most of those events were canceled, “It was really sad and disheartening for us,” said Elizabeth Carey, co-editor of the yearbook.

“We really wanted to capture those events because that’s something people like to look back on years later,” she said.

“It really affected how we could cover half of everybody’s year – especially the seniors’,” Carey said.

Elizabeth, who graduated early in January but still came back to campus to work on the beloved yearbook, had already spent the fall and winter planning for the school’s big commemorative 50th anniversary edition, which is centered around the theme, “Embrace the Legacy.”

The theme is still the same, but the dozen-or-so extra pages exploring the school’s experience during an unprecedented public health crisis were a part of the staff’s quick reaction to the situation.

“It showed us the importance of continuing to tell people’s stories,” said Elizabeth, who worked alongside about 15 other students – on a tight deadline – to capture the COVID-19 experiences of their peers.

Those stories are now a part of the school’s history and legacy, too.

“This is going to go down in the history books,” Elizabeth said. “It’s not every year that you have a pandemic that shuts everything down.”

It’s certainly been a historic few months for Carey’s teacher, Dan Morris. Directing both a student newspaper and a yearbook while navigating the quirks of remote teaching has proven one of the more challenging aspects of Morris’ 25-year career.

“My initial reaction to describe what’s going on is frustration at the whole situation,” said Morris, whose biggest hurdle has been communicating with students outside of the classroom.

“All of the pressures of not being able to work together made it hard,” said Morris, who coordinated an entirely remote finalization of the yearbook. “But our kids are much more adaptable than we give them credit for. I’m extremely proud of what our kids have done.”

Morris, who will most miss sending off his seniors, said that, all things considered, he’ll consider it a successful year if he can “just make it through yearbook distribution.”

Kanilehua Miller, a sophomore who designed a page about student essential workers, is also mourning the daily personal interactions she enjoyed with other staff.

“This whole experience has taught me to appreciate being able to go to school and getting to see my friends and teachers,” Kanilehua said. “Now that school’s closed, we won’t be able to get together and congratulate each other on all of our hard work on the yearbook.”

If nothing else, the yearbook is proof this year was far from average for East High.

Kanilehua, who plans to work on the yearbook staff next fall, said when people flip through East’s memories of this year, she hopes the yearbook will not only show “what it was like before COVID-19 – the good times when everyone was together,” but also what the hard times felt like.

“Hopefully, in 20 years, I’ll be able to look through it with my friends in person – without a face mask,” she said.