The pandemic has robbed 2020 graduates of traditional celebrations. Several share their thoughts on the interrupted senior year and curtailed commencement plans.
BY ALEXIA MCKAY
The senior skip days, pep rallies, senior send-offs, the senior section in the cafeteria, skipping the lunch lines, field day, grad bash, and, of course, prom.
Those fun, carefree, childlike moments are reminisced over in high school alumni groups on Facebook and perhaps, now Zoom.
We treasure them. But for the 2020 seniors, not so much. The last months of their senior year will likely be remembered as a traumatic, somewhat depressing moment in their lives, unfairly snatched away by the unapologetic coronavirus.
Jordynn Bass, 17, had a beautiful gown made for her senior prom at Tampa Bay Technical High School that she will not be able to wear. She was looking forward to the prom and events such as a grad bash and making those priceless memories with friends who would soon be going their separate ways.
“No chance for any traditional activities, no way to formally and personally say goodbye to my teachers and friends,” Bass told the Florida Courier.
Both of her parents have been essential workers during the pandemic. Her father is a captain at Tampa Fire Rescue and her mother is a banking executive at a credit union, so she understands the seriousness of COVID-19 and the importance of social distancing. However, it doesn’t make the pain of losing what she had any better.
“I was very sad, and I felt angry,” she said. “I thought, ‘Why is this happening during my senior year?’ ’’
Alaya Epps, 18, mirrors Bass’ feelings. The Oasis Christian Academy graduate was looking forward to an eight-day senior cruise with her classmates and senior skip week.
“Everybody is just frustrated and it’s not good,” Epps said, who attends the academy in Winter Haven. “We can’t get what was promised to us… It feels like I’ve done 12 years of school for nothing.”
Teachers share grief
The loss is also reflective of the educators who have been there with them.
Alexis Cooke is a science teacher at Hillsborough High School in Tampa. She attended Howard W. Blake High School, also in Tampa, and would constantly share her 2008 senior memories with her students.
For her, this year’s prom and graduation ceremonies would have been especially priceless.
“This year has been especially difficult because it’s the first group of students that I been there with them from their freshmen year to their senior year,” Cooke said. “We were all looking forward to this together because we’ve all grown. It sucks not being able to be there for them.”
Dampens your mood
University of Florida graduate Brachari Howard, 22, sympathizes with his fellow, younger seniors. The Miramar native was fortunate to experience his high school senior year to the fullest.
“I definitely feel for them [high school seniors],” Howard said. “My high school graduation, all of the senior events in high school, those were some great memories. I still think back to them to this day, just thinking about how much fun I had, so I really, really feel for them.”
However, college for Howard is a different story. As a first-generation college student, he was looking forward to sharing the celebratory moment with his friends and family.
“It’s definitely dampened my mood,” Howard said. When the news of the pandemic first broke out, he never imagined it would become as big as it is today.
“I feel like I put in a lot of work over these last four years, I’ve been through a lot; I dealt with a lot.”
Advice for grads
Nonetheless, he finished with Cum Laude honors with a Bachelor of Science degree in sports management.
“I feel amazing,” he commented about his accomplishment. “I wanted to be able to celebrate that through my graduation ceremony, but it is what it is.”
Howard had a job offer waiting for him in Houston, but it was postponed due to the coronavirus.
“If it’s hitting you harder than it’s hitting others, please mourn, please grieve, express your emotions, don’t try to ball it up. Don’t try to run away from your emotions,” he said. “This situation is tough, but I feel we’ll be able to get out of the situation stronger than when we were going into the situation.”
A doctor’s perspective
Dr. Lonna Gordon, an Orlando based pediatrician and adolescent specialist, says the feelings of disappointment and depression students are experiencing are completely normal due to the circumstances and acknowledging that this moment in their lives “does suck.’’
“There’s no way to sugarcoat it or pretend it doesn’t or say it wasn’t that big of a deal,” Gordon told the Courier. “It does suck and it’s OK to acknowledge that losing milestones is hard. And we shouldn’t put it in context of other things that are lost.”
The Florida A&M graduate says one of the biggest mistakes that adults can make is making comments to seniors like, “Well, you don’t get to graduate but you’re alive; other people are dead.”
Instead, Gordon suggests reassuring them of the positives.“It’s a moment that’s not gone, but it’s different,” she stressed.
“You are still a high school graduate and no one can take that away from you.’’
Some Florida school districts have tentatively rescheduled their high school graduations for the summer.
In Hillsborough County, ceremonies are set for July and that’s if the pandemic forecast gives them the OK to do so. Nonetheless, the momentum of what should be one of the greatest moments in their lives has been lost.
“I am glad that we will have the opportunity, but some of us will be looking to what is next in life,” said Bass, who had been counting down the days of her graduation since last year. “We just sort of lost moments that we cannot really get back.”
Cooke does her part to try to keep her students uplifted through motivational messages and corny jokes via text, but the somber mood is hard to ignore.
“It’s not the same. You don’t have that arena filled with your whole family, holding signs, the screaming and shouting, airhorns that you’re not supposed to have,” Cooke explained.
“They’re missing out on that because even if these graduations are rescheduled, it’s all tentative. We don’t know what this virus is going to be looking like in the summertime. It’s all up in the air.”
But some schools like Epps’ in Polk County have managed to pull some kind of ceremony for them together sooner. On Friday, May 15, Epps and her 16-member senior class were to walk across the football field and stand six feet apart for their special moment.
On the collegiate level, Howard says the University of Florida has set aside July 31-Aug. 2 as possible dates for their graduation.
“I’m hoping that things go well, and we are able to celebrate,” he said. “I still feel like I’ll still be excited but just not as excited because of the whole mood and tone of the situation.”
However, he adds that if the event does not happen, he will learn to cope and come to terms with it.
Hope for future
Despite the hardships that COVID-19 has impacted on their lives, students are still finding some encouragement and hope for the future.
Bass will be starting her college career virtually this summer and aspires to pursue a career in the criminal justice field.
Epps: Don’t rush it
Epps plans to become a licensed minister this fall and study mortuary science at St. Petersburg College next spring. Her advice to seniors coming after her is to embrace the moment.
“Don’t rush your senior year. Don’t say, ‘I’m ready to get out,’ ” Epps advised. “Because I can’t tell you how many times, I’ve said that and now I’ve gotten what I said that I wanted to happen.”
Epps added, “We won’t be in this forever, even though it seems like forever. Everything is going to be OK if you just pray and trust in God.”