Cougars and COVID: Perspectives on School Spirit in 2021

November 20, 2021

It’s hard to feel proud of a school you’ve barely attended. Between virtual spirit events and online classes, most students at Cherry Hill East have yet to experience a complete, “normal” year of high school. How will East revitalize its over 50 years’ worth of traditions after one and a half years of pandemic life? And, more importantly, do today’s East feel connected to the school culture? Here, we’ll explore these questions from the perspectives of those experiencing them first hand: the East community.

School spirit and the “return to normalcy”

On May 21, 2021, Governor Phil Murphy announced that all New Jersey schools were returning to in-person instruction for the 2021-2022 school year. This decision elicited various reactions from the public. Some supported the decision, praising Murphy for taking this step in the “return to normalcy” for New Jersey students. Others, however, weren’t as enthusiastic.

Some of this cynicism stemmed from the start of the 2020-2021 school year, where many New Jersey districts—Cherry Hill Public Schools included—pushed hybrid and in-person instruction back to opt for online schooling. Although this decision was beneficial in hindsight, it also caused a massive shift in the Cherry Hill East student body.

Currently, the seniors are the last class at Cherry Hill East who have had at least one full year of a traditional, in-person high school experience. As for the rest of the student body, most of their high school experience comes from Google Meets, online assignments, and virtual spirit events. Consequently, the class of 2022 are the last students at East who know have experienced East’s many traditions, some of which have an over 50-year history. These thoughts open up a compelling question, “how will COVID-19 impact school spirit at East?”

To try to answer this question, one must first evaluate the student body’s level of school spirit before the pandemic. Although “spirit” is subjective, many students commented on East’s lack of it in the few years before the pandemic.

In a 2019 editorial covering the annual pep rally, former Eastside Editor-in-Chief Aine Pierre said the event was “utterly devoid of spirit, pep or rally.”

Pierre also said the crowd seemed noticeably less enthusiastic than in years past. This observation was just one of many examples of the lack of spirit among the East student body at that time, for the sporting event and school dance attendances were also relatively low. None of this is to say that East never had school spirit. Looking back at videos from just ten years ago, seas of red flooded the student sections at games with the crowd enthusiastically cheering on the team. More recently, it seemed like this level of school pride has died down. With most East students not having a “normal” high school experience, their lack of connection may exacerbate this problem.

Surprisingly, this hasn’t been the case thus far. Many school spirit events have shockingly had an increase in attendance. Most notably, the Hoco-Ween dance had over 850 people in attendance, the largest turnout at any Halloween and Homecoming dance in East history. Perhaps the year in the half of online schooling made people more eager to get involved in East events.

There are many perspectives on how the return to normalcy will influence East culture and pride. Although some fear the consequences of spending a year and a half online, others see the transition as an opportunity to get excited about being an East student. Despite this, there is no way of knowing what the future holds for school spirit at East—especially during the uncertainty of the pandemic.

Freshman perspective: Manar Hadi

After a long year and a half of the mess we call a pandemic, we are finally back in school. For some of us, it is our first year of high school. Middle school to high school brought a significant change in our lives, and with the pandemic on top of that, there were so many adjustments we had to make as high school students. The freshmen, for example, had to go to a brand new school full of new people we did not know. Whether you have noticed it or not, the pandemic immensely altered our school culture.

If there’s one thing I’ve noticed, it’s how immature everyone seems to act. Most freshmen still behave like seventh graders–which isn’t surprising considering that was the last time we had any social interaction. I feel like the humor we use isn’t the most mature. You would think since we’re older now, we’d know how to be more grown-up. However, COVID has not let us grow up. I’m still seeing the same behavior I saw in the seventh grade. Trends, such as “deviously licking” the school facilities, reflect this lack of maturity. I hope this can eventually change, but as for now, it’s still interesting to see how the pandemic affected us.

School events and spirit go hand in hand, which is why I was concerned about how the pandemic would affect these school events, but surprisingly, it didn’t do much. I was expecting many people to be discouraged by the thought of getting COVID, but looking back at Hoco-Ween, it felt like a typical school dance. The only difference I could see was the distribution of food, but even that was subtle. 850 people packed in a courtyard seemed crazy to me, but everyone seemed fine in the end. While I spoke to my friends about if they were worried about COVID at Hoco-Ween, they said they weren’t that afraid and were excited to attend.

I have always struggled with time management and procrastination, but the pandemic made my struggle even worse. Now that I was home all the time, I found myself getting on my phone rather than doing my math homework or scrolling through social media instead of typing my English essay. Although I’m in school now, the urge to get off track remains. It gets to the point where I find myself doing work late at night when I know I shouldn’t have to be. I understand that since this is a high school, we are getting assigned even more work than middle school and I do feel overwhelmed at times, but it gets to the point where I’m skeptical of going to a club meeting or joining new clubs since I think I won’t be able to balance that with my work.

But this leads to another question, who’s to say that we won’t have any more adjustments in the future?”

— Manar Hadi ('25)

So the question remains, how will school spirit change as time goes on. Will things stay the same? Will things go back to what they were before the pandemic? Or will new things occur to us at school? School culture, especially here at Cherry Hill East, changes very quickly and significantly. Hopefully, in the future, COVID will die down. But this leads to another question, who’s to say that we won’t have any more adjustments in the future?

Sophomore perspective: Gia Gupta

At Rosa International Middle School, during the last day of my sixth grade spirit week, there was green in the bandana tied in my hair, the smeared paint under my eyes, and the fabric of every piece of cloth hugging my body. As all of the sixth graders collected together in the bleachers, our socks, necklaces, t-shirts, but most of all, our spirit, created a sea of green. It was enough for all of us to feel like we were united and belonged to something special.

At Cherry Hill High School East, during the last day of my ninth grade Spirit Week, pajamas hugged my body, a fear of fitting in on my mind, and thoughts collecting about the time when we were green with a spirit that had vanished into thin air, something beyond grasp. As all of us ninth-graders sat in our Google Meets, our ceiling fans and profile pictures created a sea of individuals, where most of us probably didn’t know that it was Spirit Week, and if we did, we had trouble figuring out what to feel spirited about.

Now, I don’t know how to have school spirit for a school that I’ve spent most of my time attending on a screen. After a year of being isolated in my home, as I spend my tenth-grade year in school, there are times when I feel like I’m walking and everything around me is invisible, and I am invisible to everyone else. I don’t have the same willingness to rummage through every box in my closet to find a single green beaded necklace or relentlessly beg my parents to go to Party City to get colorful socks. Since I entered Cherry Hill East alone as a freshman this year, it feels like things haven’t changed, even if they absolutely have.

If we don’t recognize that we are now together, we are not embracing our shared identity as students”

— Gia Gupta ('24)

Yet, with every day, some moments remind me why I should be proud of this school. As sophomores, we entered this school alone. If we don’t recognize that we are now together, we are not embracing our shared identity as students, which can unite us if we believe that we belong to something special. Four years later, there is still something that can transcend our differences as individuals and let us rise again, this time, as a sea of red.

Junior perspective: Natalie Finklestein

Freshman year, 2019-2020, was a long ride. It was a ride that had a bit of a hill in the middle of it–that stunted your motion for some time–but eventually ended. Sophomore year, specifically 2020-2021, was like a ride you go on as a kid. At the time, it felt like it had as many rigorous twists and turns as any other year, but when it ended, I realized I didn’t appreciate the ease of it enough. Thank you, remote learning.

Junior year is something else.

Junior year is already the Kingda Ka of school years, with studying for the SATs, participating in the optimal number of school clubs, and trying your best to perform well in AP classes. But with me and the rest of the Class of 2023 coming back from a year of COVID remote learning, this year feels like if you went on the teacups first and immediately decided to ride Kingda Ka next. No log flume in the middle.

Like I said, sophomore year, at the time, did feel as challenging as it would have been if we had it in person, especially with English class and precalculus being as rigorous as ever. But, I think it’s now necessary to recognize that last year wasn’t normal, it was far easier than that, and therefore, this year can’t be normal either. There needs to be some sort of leniency in understanding how students are attempting to return to regularity.

How can anyone expect anything different from a student — a group of students — that had less than six months in “normal” high school before fully committing to online education?”

— Natalie Finklestein ('23)

Another skewed aspect of this year has been my mindset at school. Every time I think about being an upperclassman, my mind goes a little haywire. Sometimes, I feel like I’m still mentally in freshman year. How can anyone expect anything different from a student — a group of students — that had less than six months in “normal” high school before fully committing to online education?

I remember seeing my older brothers when they were juniors. I thought they were so old. The girls in their grade looked old too. Now, I’ve got to say I don’t feel as old as them. Whatsoever.

As for my view of the school spirit aspect of the junior class and school in general, we are seriously lacking. I’ve heard that some of my fellow juniors resent our absence of school spirit. We — the majority of East — rarely attend our very own football games, a Friday night tradition for students across the country. When talking about the recent Hoco-Ween dance at school, countless people initially said they didn’t plan on attending. Of course, we had the highest turnout for Homecoming in East history this year (amazing!), but the fact that so many students were content with making separate plans is sad in itself.

I have a lot of friends at other schools in the region, even some of my closest ones. Every day during their Spirit Week, I saw the excitement they had for dressing up on their private Snapchat stories. The first day was decades. Then, it was careers. After that, it was country vs. country club. And each day, I got more jealous of their student body’s eagerness to show their love for their school publicly. Of course, their juniors were the most participatory class in their school. I’m not sure I can say the East class of 2023 could win the same. Hopefully, we can in a few weeks.

There’s a lot of things to say about junior year, the most challenging year of high school, whether about academics, mental state, or school spirit. There’s plenty more to say about junior year occurring for students post-COVID. I’m just waiting for this rollercoaster to finally get over the hill.

Senior perspective: Alexander Barkhamer

In his First Folio, Ben Jonson described William Shakespeare as “not of an age, but for all time” (Jonson), a statement which many people apply not only to his works but the broadscale art of theatre as well. While innovation may breed new mediums through which we can express ourselves artistically, none can emulate the experience of witnessing a performance live. H

When the pandemic began to disturb the world, great showplaces such as Broadway closed to preserve their viewers’ safety. Cherry Hill East High School implemented similar moral and legal restrictions. However, our actors and directorial staff refused to concede so easily, leading to the birth of our first radio play, a pre-recorded auditory story. To the surprise of many, this persevering nature was not born from the growing epidemic but from construction that started one year prior, an event that served as a crucial catalyst for our change in attitude.

Adapting to unpredictable changes became the normality”

— Alexander Barkhamer ('22)

Due to renovations to our school’s auditorium, our theatre department developed a new motto, that being “Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere.” Adapting to unpredictable changes became the normality, as sharing space with Cherry Hill West High School created numerous differences in our usual rehearsal process.

When confronted with another new set of rules when practicing for Clue, the 2020 fall show, many approached it with excitement rather than apprehension. Being cast as the play’s narrator gave me a challenge like none I had ever encountered before, as I was tasked with describing set pieces or physical actions of other characters, both of which were usually a part of this art’s visual element. Despite these difficulties, this role remains my favorite, as every aspect contained within it was entirely unique to the circumstances we faced.

Presently we return to a period of relative normalcy in the department, mirroring that of my freshman year, a defining time in extracurriculars that has yet to be fully felt by many Juniors and Sophomores amidst our ranks. I currently look forward to acting as Willy Wonka in our Fall Play, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As this is a major character in a children’s story, I hope to kindle joy in all of our younger audience members, many of whom have not yet been able to witness a spectacle such as this in their lifetime.

Student body president gets East students excited about spirit events

SGA+student-body+president+Devyn+Levin+poses+with+Thespian+Society+President+Grace+Pierlott+at+the+2021+Hoco-Ween+dance

Lucas Tang ('23)

SGA student-body president Devyn Levin poses with Thespian Society President Grace Pierlott at the 2021 Hoco-Ween dance

As school begins to return to a sense of normalcy after a year and a half of virtual school due to COVID-19, spirit week and other school events are occurring again. Last year, many annual East events weren’t able to take place like they normally do. For example, spirit week took place in the spring rather than it’s normal timing in the fall. SGA also had to get creative with how to facilitate spirit week events in a safe way. Many events were virtual or took place outside. After the unusual spirit week that took place last year, SGA plans to bring back old traditions and events this year but also implement some of the newer aspects of last year’s spirit week into it.

Student body president, Devyn Levin (‘22), said that SGA plans to do the cake decorating contest again this year (which was new last year) as well as bring back old traditions like the booth decorating contest.

With half of the student body never having experienced a normal spirit week at East, there’s some skepticism about how much student involvement and spirit there will be this year. Levin and the rest of the SGA officers are working hard to get as many students involved as possible. To do this, she is making good use of the grades’ Instagram accounts and the SGA Instagram (@cheastsga) to spread the word about the spirit week dance, booth, and other activities. “I’ve also reached out to the art club…to help out with the booth,” Levin said.

…people have not been to a school wide event in years now and people were eager to get out and have fun.”

— Devyn Levin ('22)

With school back in person this year, it’s unknown how much school spirit there will be overall with other school events, not just
with spirit week. Levin said that she thinks it goes both ways for how much school spirit students have this year. For example, Hoco-Ween had the largest attendance in school history last month. “I feel like mostly that was because people have not been to a school wide event in years now and people were eager to get out and have fun,” Levin said.

On the contrary, other school events have seen a lack of student attendance, especially the football games. Levin said that the Homecoming game on October 23 and the East vs. West game on October 29 had extremely and embarrassingly low attendance.
Along with spreading information through social media, Levin also said that “…coming soon we are starting a student voice committee…What you can expect to see in the future is us randomly interviewing students at lunch.”

The purpose of this committee is to get student opinions on school events and to also see if students are knowledgeable about what’s going on at East. Levin said that the recent pumpkin carving competition had a lack of participants due to students being unaware that the competition was happening. “It’s hard to get over 2000 people aware of what’s going on in our school so we are really trying to get people involved who aren’t just in our friend groups,” said Levin.

SGA is constantly working hard to plan events that will excite the students and boost school spirit.

“I think the spirit week dance is one of those things that when you look back on your high school career you remember…I just think it’s a thing that I will remember for years to come.”

School spirit cheat sheet

Mr. Davis weighs in on the importance of school spirit events

The+juniors+perform+in+the+2021+Spirit+Week+Dance+Competition

Rebecca Hu ('24)

The juniors perform in the 2021 Spirit Week Dance Competition

Spirit Week is a prime example of East spirit. The activities during this week would not have been possible without one of East’s activities directors, Mr. Charles Davis.

Along with directing the activities throughout the school year, Davis is also in his 21st year of teaching Financial Literacy at East. Although he is a teacher at East today, just 31 years ago, he attended the school as a student, having a special connection to East history.

While being East’s activities director, Davis has administered numerous events that have become East traditions. The Spirit Week Dance is one of them.

“One class would perform, and everyone would stand around in a semi circle around them- that was the origin of the Spirit Week Dance,” Davis said.

He said that the Spirit Week Dance was originally a school dance for all classes, with a competition between grade levels occurring the same night. At the end of the night, parents and students would watch these performances together. Towards the beginning of his role as an activities coordinator, Davis split this combined dance into two separate events: the Homecoming Dance and the Spirit Week Dance Competition. Now, these two events are some of the highlights of the school year.

Along with Spirit Week, Davis has emphasized wanting to “give back” while having fun. Since then, he has implemented a fundraiser each year during Spirit Week. This year, classes participated in a dress-up day for Alex Lemonade’s Stand with the proceeds of the purchased shirts donated to the organization while also competing all week to collect the most canned goods for the community food drive. Classes earn Spirit Week points while giving back to the community.

Davis manages the Spirit Week activities and additional events throughout the school year to provide students with a memorable high school experience.

You make your high school experience what you want it to be”

— Mr. Charles Davis

Although he lays the opportunities for students to get involved, he stresses the importance of students doing their own part of participating. From his experience, these events play a significant role in establishing an exciting school atmosphere and improving students’ well-being throughout their high school career overall.

Davis encourages all students to engage in student activities during the school year. “You make your high school experience what you want it to be,” said Davis.

East spirit through the years: interview with Ms. Barr

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