Yearbooks capture pre-coronavirus world for Southern California students

Before they started snapping pictures, writing copy blocks and designing pages, 26 Chaparral High School students selected a theme for the 2019-20 yearbook.

One and only.

Apropos of the months ahead, Jackie Schmidt’s yearbook students, like thousands of other creative minds across Southern California, set out in the fall to capture in art and text the uniqueness of a school year barrelling toward an abrupt and unprecedented ending.

In March, as the coronavirus pandemic brought about distance learning and threatened such intrinsic high school traditions as prom, grad night and graduation, yearbook students at high schools from Anaheim to Yucaipa were putting the finishing touches on their respective projects.

More than two months later, those campus scrapbooks are off the presses and finding their way into the hands of teens in dire need of something familiar during such unfamiliar times.

“A yearbook is a legacy piece,” said Schmidt, now in her 12th year as yearbook adviser at Temecula’s Chaparral High. “It captures school history, but also is one of those things that students end up discussing at their 5-, 10-, 20-year reunion. We’re trying to capture best we can not only the senior experience, but the freshman experience, the sophomore experience, the junior experience.

“We want to truly represent our entire student body’s experience with events that happened during the school year.”

A time capsule

As the main editor of the yearbook for Aquinas High School in San Bernardino, senior Sara Duran was responsible for about 75% of what can now be considered a time capsule to a pre-coronavirus, pre-COVID-19 world.

With hard deadlines throughout the school year, yearbook advisers and student editors like Duran dole out assignments so major seasonal activities such as dances, pep rallies and sporting events are covered. Similarly, senior portraits have to be handed in by a certain date, while prom, grad night and other year-end celebrations typically fall casualty to March and April deadlines.

“We learned this year,” Duran said, “that time is very precious.”

Chaparral High School yearbook students Katelyn Blankenship, from left, Erin Lancaster and Katherine Phung work on the yearbook before the coronavirus pandemic closed campuses in March. (Photo courtesy of Chaparral High School)

Servite High School yearbook advisers Jen Emard and Andrea Watanabe have cultivated a classroom environment that bears a resemblance to a Fortune 500 company, with the two women serving as chief executive officers overseeing a major business project.

Yearbook students at the all-boys Catholic school in Anaheim learn the basics of project management, the two said, and are encouraged throughout the school year to reflect on what went right, what went wrong and what could be done better next time.

Above all, Emard and Watanabe said, kids have to take ownership of their projects to truly appreciate the process.

“Yearbook is a real neat way to be connected to all aspects of the school,” Emard said. “Our kids are taking photos at sporting events, robotics competitions, theater. I don’t know any elective at Servite that puts kids in every classroom – English, math, history – and gives them the opportunity to interview teachers and students throughout the year.”

With the exception of a few pages for spring sports and activities, most pages in most yearbooks were complete when the coronavirus crisis closed campuses in March.

However, work still remained.

Duran, 17, and a few of her Aquinas classmates met virtually with students and teachers to go over and finish assignments. Schmidt, meanwhile, used Chaparral’s Blackboard communication tool to solicit student photos for the “Student life” spread and Emard and Watanabe said they had to reconfigure certain pages at the tail end of the yearbook to make up for lost content.

“Our yearbook kids and their adviser worked so tremendously hard,” Rialto High principal Caroline Sweeney said. “There’s nothing in this yearbook that looks rushed or hurried. It looks like it has the same pride as every other year. Our yearbook kids just made it work because they were so committed to it being a good product.

“They knew it was going to be history,” Sweeney added. “This yearbook will be the pandemic yearbook, it will.”

Working on deadline under such extreme conditions, Duran said, “got my creative juices flowing. I had to think hard about different pages and how I wanted them to look, what colors to use, how photos go with each other. These moments would be memories for students and I was able to make these memories last through the yearbook.

“I had a lot of pride after finishing this.”

Coronavirus’ place in yearbooks

Aside from a sentence or two explaining why certain springtime pages were barer than usual, precious little ink in most 2019-20 yearbooks was spilled on the coronavirus pandemic or the subsequent school closures and statewide lockdowns.

However, as relatively little impact as the virus had on completing these keepsakes, how and when they will be distributed to students amid the current public health crisis has changed entirely.

Yearbook students at Rialto High, for example, traditionally plan distribution parties during lunches to toast the year that was with ice cream, music and opportunities for friends to sign pages. Due to public health concerns, however, yearbooks are expected to be passed out safely on campus at a later date, with school officials brainstorming ways to celebrate the moment.

“Our kids want the memory of this year,” said Sweeney, noting that Rialto High is close to selling out of yearbooks for the first time. “To me, (the yearbook) is one of our largest sources of pride. These are truly going to create one of the lasting memories for us.”

All Chaparral High yearbooks close with a note from one of the class’ editors.

This year, Schmidt’s graduating son, Jacob, had the honor.

While most students will not see his message, or even know it is there, until they have a moment to sit down and thumb through the moments forever memorialized inside, Jacob Schmidt’s message of perseverance in these trying times quite literally closes the book on the most upside-down school year of all.

“I’m proud of our kids, and I’m excited for our student body to get this,” Jackie Schmidt said. “We had a good year. It ended in something we couldn’t control, but this yearbook I truly believe is going to bring back super positive experiences. Students will be able to look back and remember that the last nine weeks were rough, but the first 27 were pretty fantastic.

“We’ve all grown this year and our yearbook will capture that.”