High school yearbook staffs look back on the year that wasn’t

Gianna Mosca, a 10th-grader at San Marcos High, writes notes on the planning board for this year's student yearbook
Gianna Mosca, a 10th-grader at San Marcos High School, writes notes on the planning board for this year’s student yearbook on campus Friday.
(Courtesy of Madison Perkins)

Students had to get creative in assembling memory books for campuses that were closed for most of the school year


For six of the 12 years that Carmel Valley teenager Amanda Zhang has been in school, her favorite extracurricular activity has been working on the yearbook staffs at her middle and high schools.

So when Zhang knew she’d be yearbook editor-in-chief for her senior year at Canyon Crest Academy, she was so excited she started planning out the book’s theme and design a year in advance. Then came the pandemic.

Like students at high schools all over San Diego County, Zhang and her 40-member yearbook staff had to find a new way to memorialize a school year when the campus was closed, sports were cut or postponed, plays and concerts were performed online and annual traditions like the winter formal and prom were canceled. And even though these students found creative ways to remotely produce their yearbooks from home, is there a market for annuals that celebrate a mostly lost school year?

Amanda Zhang works via computer at her desk at home in Carmel Valley.
Amanda Zhang, 18, the editor in chief for Canyon Crest Academy’s 2020-2021 yearbook looks at page designs from her desk at home in Carmel Valley.
(Courtesy of Ruihao Zhang)

Zhang, 18, is hopeful that interest in the yearbooks will soar this spring, but she admits sales are down for the 500-page book that was shipped off to the printer in early April.

“Some people don’t want to buy this yearbook because they don’t want to remember being locked away and trying to finish their classes online,” Zhang said. “But some are like me. I can’t erase this fully, so what can I do to remember this year maybe five to 10 years down the line?”

ALSO: How San Diego high schools adapted their yearbooks in spring 2020

At San Marcos High School, yearbook editors Morgan Stotts and Zachary Mandel said things looked pretty bleak last fall when they didn’t know how to gather interviews, take student photos or co-design pages remotely from their home laptops. Without the traditional events like first day of school and homecoming to highlight sections of the book, they decided instead to cover topics that affected everyone during the school year, like COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests.

The theme the San Marcos High staff came up with for its 2020-2021 yearbook is “Make Shift,” which represents both the makeshift plans they made in the early months to the flexibility required as social distancing rules changed. Their patience paid off, because San Marcos High reopened for hybrid learning at the end of March, with masked students rotating on and off campus two days a week.

All of San Marcos High’s sports are back up and running this spring, as well, so the 24-member yearbook staff has taken more than enough shots to fill the book’s sports section. And because the school is delaying the shipment of its books to late summer, this year’s annual will be able to include coverage of graduation ceremonies for the first time.

“We found a way. It really wasn’t all that bad of a change,” said editor-in-chief Stotts, a junior who hopes to fill the same position next fall on the yearbook staff. “What I learned is that every year is different and that doing things the same way for multiple years has hindered our ability to adjust to new scenarios and new students coming to our campus. We’re trying to be inclusive and we found a way to do that this year.”

San Marcos High yearbook adviser Josh Clements, right, works with 12th grader Mackenzie Masterson
San Marcos High yearbook adviser Josh Clements, right, works with 12th grader Mackenzie Masterson on yearbook design plans during class on-campus Friday.
(Courtesy of Madison Perkins)

One advantage San Marcos High had over Canyon Crest Academy was that it was able to hold onsite registration days last fall, where students came to campus to have their photos taken for the yearbook. Because there was no registration/photo day at Canyon Crest, Zhang and her staff had to figure out how to obtain photos from all of the more than 2,500 students at the Carmel Valley high school.

Instead of putting the burden of gathering photos on the yearbook staff, all Canyon Crest students were assigned to homerooms, where those teachers were asked to coordinate the collection of photos. Many of the photos sent in were selfies the students shot at home with their cellphones. To give the students some creative freedom, each homeroom created its own photo theme, so all the students in one homeroom sent in black-and-white photos, while another asked for photos with a tropical theme. Unfortunately, many students didn’t send in photos at all, so they won’t be represented in this year’s book, Zhang said.

The seniors at Canyon Crest did have photo shoots with a professional photographer, but because they weren’t required to pose in front of a standard backdrop this year, many of them got creative. Zhang said some seniors Photoshopped the neon green hills from the “Teletubbies” TV show into their portrait background.

Canyon Crest Academy yearbook editors Jessica Carpenter, left, Yeonwoo Chu and Amanda Zhang.
Canyon Crest Academy yearbook editor-in-chief Amanda Zhang, right, with her fellow editors Jessica Carpenter, left, and Yeonwoo Chu, at the Carmel Valley high school campus.
(Courtesy of Jennifer Travasos)

Josh Clements, who has served as yearbook adviser at San Marcos High for the past six years, said it’s been a huge shift having to start from scratch this past year and make the best of a difficult situation. He’s very proud of how well the students have adapted to the changes. One big bonus he’s seen this year is that sales have never been higher for the senior advertisements that parents place to celebrate their graduates.

“The senior parents haven’t been spending as much money on Disneyland tickets or other things so they have this extra money,” Clements said. “There’s probably a little bit of guilt involved as well. This was a bummer of a year and they think ‘let me do something really nice for my senior student, even though it was this type of year.’”

Even with the opportunity for preorders last fall, Clements said yearbook sales at San Marcos High have been slow. Last year, 2,000 of the school’s 3,400 students purchased yearbooks. So far this year, sales are down 75 percent. He’s hoping that with the staff’s last-minute ability to chronicle sports, graduation and other spring on-campus events in the book, many more students will decide to purchase one of the 336-page books.

“I’m the eternal optimist,” Clements said. “We can feature all of these events that are popping up that have been crammed into three months.”

Student editors Zhang at Canyon Crest and Mandel at San Marcos High will graduate in June, and both will be attending UC San Diego in the fall. They say that while the past year has been hard in many ways, it has taught them a lot about themselves, in particular learning how to lead and adapt in tumultuous times.

Amanda Zhang, yearbook editor at Canyon Crest Academy, looks at photos in her home office in Carmel Valley.
Amanda Zhang, 18, editor-in-chief of the yearbook at Canyon Crest Academy high school, looks at photos in her home office in Carmel Valley.
(Courtesy of Ruihao Zhang)

“I would say it’s been a great learning experience,” Mandel said. “Even with the pandemic and all the changes, you have to see the positives through that dark light. It’s been great having the extra time to see everyone in person the past few weeks and know that the staffers are working so hard on this book. I couldn’t be more happy, considering what we’ve all had to deal with.”

Although the Canyon Crest yearbook is now complete, the yearbook staff is working on a supplement that will be added as an insert when the books arrive on campus around June 4. That gives students a full week before graduation to have friends sign each others yearbooks and go their separate ways. Zhang is looking back on the past year as mostly positive, especially the shorter online school days.

“I think one characteristic of Canyon Crest Academy is that a lot of the students are resilient and adaptable,” she said. “Definitely it’s still disappointing but everyone knows that this is going to pass. It’s like, I can’t change the experience, so what can I do to make it memorable?”

—Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune

San Marcos High 9th-grader Raeleigh McGowan edits photos for the school's yearbook.
San Marcos High ninth-grader Raeleigh McGowan edits photos for the school’s yearbook during class on campus Friday, April 30.
(Courtesy of Madison Perkins)