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The cover of this year’s high-school yearbook (a pandemic yearbook), profiling the work of students and staff at Western Tech in Toronto.

Western Tech/Handout

There are no pictures of the football team in the yearbook this year at Western Technical-Commercial School, in Toronto. There are no student memories from field trips or from assemblies, and many of the young faces are obscured by masks.

But there is a photograph of a student strumming his guitar on his couch at home, his thick brown hair draped down to his eyes, and another of a girl cradling her furry black-and-white lapdog, her eyes beaming in the frame. There are plenty more, too – selfies, taken from the safety of home – where the smiles are evident even under the unusual circumstances of the 2020-21 school year.

More than a mere document, the high-school yearbook has always stood as a time capsule, and the latest edition at Western Tech shows what students lost this year, but also celebrates the perseverance of so many Canadian high schoolers in the face of a pandemic.

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“It felt to me that of all the years, this would be a year worth documenting. That people might actually look back and want to recollect what has happened,” said Tearney McMurtry, a teacher at the school and the yearbook co-ordinator.

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High-school students, in particular, have missed out on so much this year. Because of restrictions limiting gatherings, many students have attended school only every other day – often for just a few hours – and have spent the rest of their time learning online. Sports have been cancelled or strictly limited, along with clubs and dances.

The yearbook was a rite of passage through high school that Ms. McMurtry wanted to preserve.

Finding ways to fill a pandemic yearbook, however, presented new challenges. With a limited number of staff and students in the building on any given day, the task of taking pictures was even more difficult, let alone figuring out what could be included.

The 2020-21 yearbook has only 80 pages compared with more than 100 in previous years. With activities limited at school, the students on the yearbook committee devoted pages to events outside the building, such as the Black Lives Matter marches and other world events.

Zoom screen grabs of online gatherings and the few clubs that held virtual meetings were inevitable. But it’s the class pictures – taken outdoors on the school’s front lawn – that may be this edition’s greatest triumph. It took four days to cycle groups through the staging area. Each class walked out one door and headed back in through another to adhere to COVID-19 protocols. (Photographers weren’t allowed inside the building.)

In the photos, the students stand stoically with their classmates, faces obscured by masks.

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“When you see it page after page, you do get a sense of what it was like … this year,” said Ms. McMurtry, who has helped design the yearbook for eight years and took the photos.

“You still get a sense of it being a place with people in it doing things, however differently than in previous years.”

Ms. McMurtry and the yearbook committee had also planned on having the 250 graduates pose individually on the school field with their gowns.

They’d scheduled the shoot to begin just after Easter weekend, but got only as far as 40 pictures.

On April 7, Toronto’s medical officer of health shuttered all schools in the city to in-person learning to slow an alarming rise in COVID-19 infections. All students moved online.

In the end, the 31 pages of grad photos in the yearbook are a mix of students draped in their gowns, mask-wearing selfies from home, and pictures of kids with their pets or hobbies. There are also silhouettes of students who did not send pictures and whose only identifiers are their names.

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Each picture, however, has three unifying icons at the bottom – a camera, a microphone and a phone – that symbolize schooling in a pandemic.

“It makes me really sad that we didn’t really have a community the way we normally do at school,” Ms. McMurtry said. “And then, I’m really proud of them all for being in school, and through all this to just keep going.”

Jakob Hamann, 18, is graduating this spring. He was scheduled to have his grad picture taken on the field the day schools closed to in-person learning. Instead, there’s a photo of Mr. Hamann taken in Grade 11 with his cropped curls and a smile across his face.

He was part of the yearbook committee this year, which to him felt like being part of the school community in an otherwise disruptive year. He brainstormed with classmates on how to make the project meaningful. The book lists the names of every student attending Western Tech, so even if their faces were absent, they were included.

“The year felt very abrupt,” Mr. Hamann said. “Going through the yearbook was nice. We weren’t able to really create any memories as a school. So doing this, at least it’s something.”

Emma Jolly has a bemused grin in her grad selfie that she took on her rooftop.

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The experience, she said, felt lacklustre, especially not wearing a graduation gown in her final yearbook photo. But then again, the whole year has felt “disconnected,” she said.

She, too, volunteered to be part of the yearbook committee, a way to contribute to what she described as “such a monumental school year.”

“It still looks like a yearbook and still symbolizes how we became a school … as distanced as we are.”

Years from now, when it is hoped that mask-wearing is a distant memory, Ms. Jolly expects it will be almost surreal to flip through the pages of the yearbook.

If anything, after being forced to spend most of the year apart, looking at it now reminds her of how the pandemic also created a shared experience. “I think the yearbook solidifies this idea that I wasn’t the only one going through a weird year.”

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