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Student School Board Member Noah Semu Talks Senior Year Amidst COVID Shutdown

A senior class tradition at Ferndale High School is posting a countdown calendar in the student lounge when there are just 30 days of school left before commencement, and then ceremoniously crossing off the days one at a time. Like many senior class traditions, this one was hijacked by Covid-19 when school buildings across the state were abruptly closed.

“A half hour before the end of the day on Friday (March 13), we learned that the following Monday was going to be our last day of school for a while,” reminisces Noah Semu, a member of the FHS Class of 2020. “Some of us started joking about it being our last day of senior year, but none of us really believed it at the time. Before we went home that Friday, we put a countdown calendar in the lounge with a big question mark on it.”

Noah Semu has been an active member of the Class of 2020, maintaining a rigorous course of studies, participating in various leadership roles at the high school, and also serving for the past two years as one of two student members of the Ferndale School Board. He might be best known for his leading roles in a number of FHS’s stage productions, including as My Fair Lady, Singin’ in the Rain, and Aladdin. Shortly before the pandemic turned his senior year upside down, Noah was notified that he had been accepted into Stanford University in the fall.

At 1:30 pm on March 13, 2020, Governor Jay Inslee held a press conference to announce that all schools across the state of Washington were ordered to close no later than midnight on Monday, March 16, and were to remain closed until at least Monday, April 27. The other districts in Whatcom County declared Friday, March 13, as their last day of school. In Ferndale, the administration decided to keep our schools open one more day -- Monday, March 16 -- for those families who chose to send their students to pick up important belongings and say temporary good-byes to their classmates and teachers.

“Having one more day was definitely a good thing,” says Noah. “I think it allowed us to get a little bit of closure. That afternoon, members of the senior class ripped down our question mark calendar -- just like past classes have taken down their calendars when the countdown reached zero. With help from staff, we arranged to get pizza from Coconut Kenny’s for a pizza party in the senior parking lot. I jokingly referred to it as our last supper. I had no idea how true that would turn out to be.”

It took a couple of weeks for teachers to get the academic aspect of high school transitioned from face-to-face classroom learning to distance learning. Noah reflects on the experience of finishing his public school education via the internet. The first few days without much school work helped us all get acclimatized to this big transition. Ever since we started receiving learning plans from each class, my teachers have been really supportive and accommodating. They have responded to contacts. They have been flexible about due dates.”

“However,” Noah goes on, “Senioritis has taken on a whole new meaning in the middle of this pandemic. I always thought I would be immune, but it’s hit me pretty hard. I think it’s infected all of us. It’s really tough to stay motivated in the situation we’re in. Fortunately, our teachers have been understanding.”

Prior to the end of in-person learning, Noah had a 3.8+ GPA. When asked about the Covid grading system the Ferndale School District adopted for this semester, which gives every secondary student an “A” grade if they engage and “I” for incomplete if they don’t, Noah says, “I think it’s good. I think it’s the right plan for this time. The arguments against it don’t seem particularly valid to me. This is a hard time for lots of people. Getting kids to try without worrying about grades should be the main goal.”

But academics are only part of the high school experience. In addition to finishing up coursework, taking finals, and putting finishing touches on post-high-school plans, senior schedules are typically crammed full with sporting events, team banquets, final concerts, recognition nights, award celebrations, prom, yearbook-signing, countdowns, commencement, graduation parties, hugs, tears, and fond farewells -- all the stuff of which memories are made.

The Class of 2020 will have its own memories, to be sure. They will have stories to tell unlike any previous class in the history of Ferndale High School, or the country, for that matter, but being the class that ended its public school career in the middle of a pandemic isn’t necessarily a distinction they wanted. Or that they feel particularly good about claiming.

Asked which of the senior traditions he felt saddest about missing, Noah says for him it’s the senior choir concert. “Choir was a big part of high school for me. Some of us had been singing together for four years with Mrs. Hagerman, and I was really looking forward to our final concert, which always highlights seniors.”

“I am sad about missing prom as well,” says Noah. Last year, as a Junior Class President, I was part of the crew who set up everything for the senior prom ahead of time and then cleaned up afterward. This year, I was looking forward to enjoying the evening with my classmates without having to do any of the work.”

“I wish we were having a traditional commencement ceremony,” Noah goes on. “But for me that hour or two at Civic Field doesn’t feel like the biggest loss. I suspect I’m not typical on this point,” he muses.

The high school administration and senior parents are working hard to put together alternative ways to celebrate the Class of 2020, planning new versions of some of the traditional senior activities. On June 13, for instance, the two-hour commencement ceremony at Civic Field Noah talked about will be replaced by an all-day filming of individual graduates picking up their diplomas in a physically-distanced setting on the FHS campus. (See for more details about Class of 2020 events occurring this month.)

Beyond the organized senior activities, Noah says he and his classmates are finding ways to maintain their relationships. They’re using their cell phones more for actual voice calls instead of just texts and Instagram messages. Noah says he relies on video games as one way of connecting with friends. He also tells about physically distanced hangouts in parking lots, where kids drive in, arrange their cars in a ring, and talk to one another through car windows.”

Noah also admits that this whole situation has had a few silver linings. As one of six children, he says for him one of the good parts has been the unexpected opportunity to spend time with his whole family. When the pandemic struck, all of his older siblings returned home from college or missions. “It’s a little crowded with all eight of us in the house,” he says. I am now sharing a bedroom with my five-year-old brother, and privacy is pretty hard to come by. But it’s actually been great having this bonding time.”  

At this point, Noah’s plans after graduation are a little up in the air. His intent was to work this summer, head to Stanford in the fall for his freshman year, then do a two-year mission for his church before finishing his college degree. However, he says, he doesn’t want to do his first year at Stanford online. “If virtual college is the only choice in the fall, I think I will hold off for a year,” he says. “Stanford has assured me they will keep a place for me if that’s what I decide.”

Noah is one of 329 seniors in the Ferndale High School Class of 2020, each with his or her own story to tell. And what stories they will have to tell.

Many of the Ferndale School District staff are also feeling sad about losing the opportunity to give a proper in-person send-off to the young men and women they have taught, coached, nurtured, and watched grow over the past 13 years. They send virtual high fives, handshakes, hugs, hats off and lots of love to all the members of the Class of 2020 as they bid this most unusual farewell to their public school education.