Graduating During a Pandemic

Lowell and Oakridge classes of 2020 finish school careers in unexpected way

By Craig Reed

Group of students posing in a group
The Oakridge senior class.

The seniors in the Class of 2020 are going to have unique memories of their final year. Unlike past years, there’s expected to be no graduation ceremony, no skip day, no senior trip, no senior pranks, no baccalaureate service, and no final day of classes filled with hugs and well wishes for this year’s high school seniors.

The coronavirus health crisis and the “Stay home, stay safe,” order canceled the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year and those special events that honor the senior class.

Lowell High School senior Melinda Winters and Oakridge High School senior Hunter Ketch agree the situation for themselves and their senior friends is frustrating and disappointing, but that “it is what it is.”

Lowell has a senior class of 32. Oakridge’s class of 2020 numbers 36.

“I think for the most part everybody is doing pretty well,” Melinda says. “We’ve talked about how this could have happened, but we’ve also talked about staying calm for another two to three months and hopefully this will have blown over by then.”

Hunter says the seniors miss seeing each other.

Group of football players on the field with their coach
Senior members of the Lowell football team and coach Pat Todd, right.

“Most of us realize those special events are just not going to happen,” he says. “We’re each pretty much just doing our own thing now. We missed out on saying our goodbyes, on hanging out together.”

These feelings and thoughts are prevalent at all high schools, where there are usually numerous events and parties to celebrate the graduation of young adults who are ready to move on to another stage of life, whether that is the workforce, college, or the military.

Graduation ceremonies are a highlight of the year, especially at smaller schools such as Lowell and Oakridge, where everybody knows everybody and the communities know their students.

Kay Graham, the Lowell High School principal, and Greg Chapman, the Oakridge High principal, are optimistic the seniors can handle this unique situation. Schools are using technology to stay in touch with seniors, to help them complete graduation requirements and provide online classes for underclassmen.

Eighth grade seniors posing in a group
Today’s Lowell seniors on their last day of eighth grade in 2016.

“This particular group has been very responsible its whole high school career,” Kay says. “They’ve been motivated to meet all their requirements to graduate.

“I am optimistic that this is just a moment in time for them. It’s hard for them to miss out on the fun things at the end of the year. But they’ve got a good up to 70 years ahead of them. They’ll be fine.”

Greg says Oakridge staff have used technology to have numerous meetings with each of that school’s seniors. He has been impressed with how well those students are dealing with the situation.

“They largely have positive attitudes,” he says. “They are concerned, they are disappointed, but they realize it is nothing they could have anticipated.”

Greg says he has explained to the Oakridge seniors that they’ll have unique memories of this time.

Football player on the field
Oakridge senior Hunter Ketch.

“Because nobody else has gone through this, people are going to be talking about the graduating class of 2020 for years,” he says. “Part of that is because it is weird and part of it is because this community is really rallying around these kids.”

School administrations, teachers, seniors, parents, and communities have been discussing ways to celebrate their 2020 seniors for several weeks.

Since it is hard to predict what the health situation will be in late May and early June when most events for seniors are held, options were considered in April. Those options include a drive-thru graduation, a parade with residents applauding the seniors from the sidewalk, or out on a football field with social distancing.

“We certainly hope to have some sort of ceremony,” Greg says, adding that one student suggested a cap, gown, and mask graduation ceremony.

“We want to celebrate the seniors in some way,” Kay agrees. “We’ll see how things transpire and then adapt however we need to adapt. We’re not going to lose sight of our seniors and some closure for them for their senior year. We’ll just have to be creative in how we give the seniors special moments that are going to be different.”

Some communities have put up yard signs, banners, and flags, some of them individualized and some for their respective 2020 class, to recognize the seniors.

Melinda and Hunter say technology such as Facebook, FaceTime, Zoom, Instagram, Twitter, and email has helped them stay in touch not only with their teachers, but also their friends. Chat groups and online photo galleries for senior students have been set up at some schools.

Melinda says a schedule has been created so seniors can individually return to their school and add their handprint to the school rock.

Young girl in front of sign. Madaline, Class of 2020, #Senior Strong 2020
Oakridge Senior Class President Madaline Maher.

Most of Lowell’s senior class have been together since kindergarten, so this time of distancing has been especially tough for those longtime friends, Melinda adds.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to come back together soon,” she says.

Kay expects the 2020 seniors to still have wonderful memories of their high school days and to make the best of how the final months of school evolved.

“Again, it’s just a moment in time,” she says. “These kids will move on quite quickly. They’ve got future plans.”

“If you consider their entire K to 12 career, this virus has just been a blip,” Greg says. “These seniors are going to go on and be hugely successful as we know most of our kids are. We’ll get through this.”