CASCADE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Four years ago this September, Colton Laufer, Sammy Mielock and Brock Barron, friends for life, were set to navigate the adventure known as high school.

“High School’s kind of like a culture shock for us,” said Barron.

He and Laufer were entering Grand Rapids Christian High as freshmen. Mielock was entering Forest Hills Central.

“I had older brothers and friends through hockey and different stuff, so they kind of help show me the path … but it’s still kind of scary walking in,” said Mielock.

“Mixed emotions for sure. Just excitement but then walking in you were so scared about being a little fish in a big pond,” said Laufer.

But six months into their high school experience came an event that would change everything.

Laufer, Mielock and Bannon, now graduating seniors, are part of the first high school class that dealt with the pandemic all four years of school.

The class of 2023 was in the home stretch of their freshman year when in March, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer made an ominous announcement.

“I am ordering the closure of all K-12 school building in Michigan for three weeks,” the governor said from the state’s Emergency Operations Center.

Concerns over the emerging COVID-19 virus had been brewing for weeks.

On March 10, 2020, the state’s first two COVID-19 cases were confirmed. Two days later, the number had increased to ten.

Concerned with the virus’ highly contagious nature, on March 13, the governor ordered schools to shut down for the three week period.

Like a lot of us, the freshman trio thought it wouldn’t last beyond three weeks — just a bump in the road to flatten the curve, and an unexpected vacation.

“First two weeks, I was like, ‘Man, this is going to be awesome … two weeks off of school. Do whatever I want.’ Then after the first two weeks, ‘This is — oh shoot,’” recalled Barron.

“We were in the Romeo and Juliet part of our English class, and we had to remember 20 lines. I was a little worried about that. Then Covid kinda shut everything down, I was pretty happy.” said Mielock. “But it kept going on and on and on.“

COVID-19 cases continued to rise. Panic set in. Everything stayed closed. Virtual learning would become an option, with teachers and students trying to interact through computer screens.

“School is fun with your interactions with people. And when you can’t interact with people, it takes all the fun out of it,” said Laufer.

Schools returned to in-person sessions that next fall, the trio’s sophomore year. But there were mask, social distancing, and other restrictions. Sports and other extracurricular activities were few and far between.

“Even going back sophomore year, they had you so separated. You could barely talk to people in class, in between class … it just took all the fun out of it,” said Laufer.  

The divide over the state’s COVID-19 mandates wasn’t just among adults.

“You kinda had two camps. And you saw the difference between what some people thought and what other people thought, and you just wanted to do whatever you figured was best,” said Mielock.

By last fall, the start of their senior year, the class of 2023 finally began to recognize what normal is supposed to look like.

Gone were mask mandates, social distancing lines and plastic barriers between desks. But there’s also a sense of something lost.

“Taking like two and a half years off basically … it just changed all of your experiences and you’re just thinking different ways,” said Laufer.

“Feels like we were missing something. I don’t know how we would have been if Covid wouldn’t have happened. Maybe we would have been different,” said Barron. “A better way.“

As for their future, Barron is headed to Michigan State, Laufer to Hope College and Mielock will head to Saskatchewan, Canada for a shot at professional hockey.

Each will carry with them an experience their generation will never forget.