The valleys carved out of Yosemite National Park's glaciers have been closed to the public for almost three months, and a few dozen lucky boys have it mostly.
Locked in the midst of waterfalls and giant redwoods, the children and their families spent the afternoons doing empty trails, river rafting and walking with wildlife now thriving in the near absence of humans.
Expect to read all about it in the next issue of the Yosemite Valley School, the product of one of America's most historic and unique public schools.
The only school within the 3,100 square kilometer park has three classrooms for 35 elementary and high school students – the children of the Yosemite core team who live in a residential area of the park and are watching while it is closed.
The school closed its doors in mid-March, like others across America and the classes met online.
But the pandemic did not stop the press from the latest edition of the school year of "The Yosemite Eye", a publication that delighted its community and has a circulation of 5,000, distributed by a local weekly newspaper.
The young reporters take their mission seriously: "To give the outside world privileged information about everyday life here", as stated by Gabriela Reyes-Morris, of the eighth grade.
Their school is in a meadow overlooking the Yosemite Falls, the highest waterfall in America and a beautiful view for playing ball. Professor Cathy DeCecco fondly calls it "Little House on the Prairie – with Wi-Fi and robotics classes". The Yosemite Valley School dates back to 1875, when it was a one-bedroom school.
The playground and playgrounds face the imposing waterfall, which offers a running soundtrack and shakes the school's walls when it reaches top speed in the spring. There is a huge, old black oak tree outside, where they sit and read when the weather is nice. They have ski days in the winter and will go in May.
Yosemite is usually full of visitors at this time of year, and the park has indicated that it may partially reopen in June.
Until then, there is an abundance of material to report a Yosemite so majestic in its emptiness that it looks like a photograph of Ansel Adams coming to life.
"Covid-19 is not affecting the beautiful flowers," said Pearl Johnson, 10. "And it is not affecting all the beautiful rivers. In fact, it is affecting the beautiful rivers in a good way because people are not polluting them."
Bears, bobcats, coyotes and other animals are having a field day.
"There are definitely more stories to tell, because all the animals are already available," said Eva Peterson, from the sixth grade. "It is so fun to be in the park right now. There is no one here."
Eva saw a bear the other day. "It was very close, so we ran towards it," she said, without a hint of irony. "This is what you have to do. You need to make a noise and get big so you can get away." Jack also saw a bear eating a deer in Cook's Meadow. At night, a mountain lion in the trees is making a strange sound that park residents think could be an invitation to mate, said Patsy Fulhorst-Kirtland, who teaches from fifth to eighth grade and is co-editor of Eye.
The kids interview all kinds of Yosemite VIPs, some of whom are their parents, like Ranger Chief Kevin Killian and Judge Jeremy Peterson. They cover events at the park and write about what makes their school so special. It is really the stuff of childhood dreams.
"The park is a constant inspiration for all children," said Fulhorst-Kirtland, who started the newspaper as an after school club last year with a volunteer, Maria Victoria Espinosa-Peterson.
The newspaper has a large audience thanks to Mariposa Gazette, a local weekly newspaper outside the park. Greg Little, editor and co-owner of the Gazette, publishes it as a quarterly insertion in the Gazette, which has a circulation of 4,000. Another 500 copies are distributed in the park. Fulhorst-Kirtland received a donation that paid for this year's printing costs.
Little and his wife, Nicole, editor of the Gazette, gave photography and writing workshops to the children, and are now being attracted to them, says Little. The latest edition included an interview with the new acting superintendent of Yosemite National Park.
"They had the only interview anyone had with Cicely Muldoon. I tried, everyone tried. But they have the exclusive," said Little.
The reader's response was tremendous, said Little. In a letter to the publisher, Judith Ann Durr, 73, wrote to say that she had Alzheimer's, which made reading difficult. "But when I tried to read the newspaper for the children of Yosemite, I just couldn't stop," she wrote. "They go straight to the point and explain things clearly."
Naturally, the next June issue will feature some stories about the coronavirus, from the children's perspective.
Fifth-grade Talleulah Barend is writing about how video games are helping people to socialize. There is a story about making masks and a word search with coronavirus keywords, like "Zoom". Eighth graders who are leaving to attend a high school outside the park often give speeches. The article will post them.
Reyes-Morris, one of the two eighth graders, credits the role for helping her find her own voice.
"It gives you a sense of responsibility and, for a small school like ours," she says, "it is the first time in children that we have spoken to the world."
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