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No prom or graduation? High school seniors worry they may lose what they’ve eagerly anticipated for years

University High School senior Jack Schneider poses for a photo outside his home on Friday, March 20, 2020, in Spokane Valley. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
University High School senior Jack Schneider poses for a photo outside his home on Friday, March 20, 2020, in Spokane Valley. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Lewis and Clark High School senior Sam McLaughlin knows his senior year won’t be anything like he dreamed.

A six-week-long break from in-person school activities amid coronavirus concerns may turn out to have just been an abrupt and unceremonious end if officials determine it won’t be safe to return to school before the end of the school year.

“I would really like us to be able to come back and be with our teachers because there’s a lot of great teachers here that I really care about,” said McLaughlin.

“Not getting to see the teachers every day and the kids here, that’s going to be tough. We’re taking almost two months away from that.”

The break, a move mandated in an emergency declaration from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, has forced schools to move to an online-only curriculum and cancel all extracurricular programs, with tentative plans to return on April 27.

Still, speculation around the novel coronavirus and its disruptions to school schedules may threaten to keep the online-only education in place for the rest of the school year, similar to actions already taken in Kansas public schools, abbreviating the senior campaign of high schoolers across the region.

Some universities, including the University of Michigan and University of California-Irvine, already have taken the extra step to cancel commencement ceremonies, a possible foreshadowing for local high schools regarding graduation.

These concerns have resonated with students set to walk across the stage in June, as the class of 2020 is confronted with the cancellation of their senior seasons for sports and extracurricular activities. And there’s growing doubt that senior year celebrations like prom and graduation – ceremonies and parties – will even happen.

While graduation ceremonies are in jeopardy, earning a degree won’t be for most high school seniors in Washington, even if school doesn’t reopen until the fall. That’s because the Legislature approved rules allowing seniors to graduate as long as they were on track to do so by the time Inslee declared an emergency on Feb. 29.

“For me, for Sam, for a lot of the students, senior year has all these milestones and these big things; to have it canceled is just a bummer,” said Lewis and Clark Associated Student Body President Josh Hechtman, who also plays football and tennis. “Especially for students who were looking forward to this year to get a scholarship or get an offer for college.”

For many, this means upended dreams of dresses and diplomas in a year that’s generally made out to be the stuff of finish-line fairy tales since kindergarten, said University High School senior Jack Schneider, whose upcoming choir concerts have been canceled.

“I’m concerned about losing the potential memories of senior year, like prom and graduation. I feel like I’m not really getting to finish exactly how I wanted to, like that high school ending that everybody dreams of as a kid. I don’t really get that now,” he said.

The threats of such a hiatus are not lost on the front offices of schools, either, said Rogers High School Principal Lori Wyborney, in an interview late last week following an online teleconference call with school officials.

“I just got off a Zoom call with all of the high school principals in Spokane, and we’re all concerned about graduation and prom,” she said.

Still, she advises students not to panic and even embrace this moment as a learning opportunity.

“Let’s take it day by day,” Wyborney said. “No matter what, in the end we will do what is best and right for all of our students, especially our seniors.”

“Learning doesn’t always mean sitting at a desk doing math. Learning can be a lot of different things, and I think this situation is going to help all of us realize that the kind of learning we have to push on our kids is about thinking and understanding what the reality of our world is right now.”

Still, Lewis and Clark Principal Mary Beth Smith understands the frustration behind the thought of seniors losing their hallmark events after 12 years of anticipation.

“I think you spend so much of high school aiming towards May and June, and I so hope the kids get it. … That’s when you really get to see everybody at their peak of their year,” Smith said. “My hope would be that if in fact we’re in a situation where we’re unable to provide those (events) on the days that they are scheduled, that we would have alternative awesome things happening once we can.”

“Everybody wants a sense of closure. We don’t know for sure, but if we can get those ahead of kids before they ever have to scatter to wherever they need to go next year, 100% we’ll do that,” she added.

But in place of the standard “senioritis” and anticipatory buzz that surrounds senior happenings lies a shared sense of uncertainty, and a new digital curriculum where assignments can only be suggested, but not entered for a grade.

“People aren’t going to be that motivated when they can be doing other things, especially since nothing is being graded because they can’t guarantee that equity for people who have to do other things,” said Lewis and Clark senior Chloe Wiley.

It’s the risk of losing the events that are so sentimentally definitive to senior year that worry students more than a new delivery of the curriculum, said Mead High School senior Connor Mitchell.

“I think academically, I’m not too worried about it, but I think you miss out on a lot of things that people usually do going through high school like prom, which is kind of scary if that doesn’t happen,” Mitchell said. “We’re in a really strange territory there, because it’s so different from a lot of other experiences in high school.”

“A lot of people have things that they were working on, and spring sports as well, that are now just all for naught.”

If schools return to class as scheduled on April 27, Mitchell wonders what the effect will be on students.

“A lot of people will have pretty much done nothing for six weeks, and a lot of people also will have been just doing what the teacher has been suggesting, so we’ll all be in different places,” he said.

All of this culminates in a general sense of disbelief that has swept over the minds of seniors, said Lewis and Clark senior John Allison.

“I noticed this new tone. You can just feel like everybody is kind of like, ‘What are we going to do?’ We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Regardless of the fanfare that may go unspoken at the loss of some of high school’s blockbusting ceremonies in the midst of coronavirus closures, seniors like Hechtman and McLaughlin champion the concept of students doing their best to be there for one another.

“During this time of being isolated, you really need to rely on having friends and at least being social somewhat so you’re not isolating yourself for the six-week period,” Hechtman said. “Use this time to give back and come together instead of panicking.”

McLaughlin said students who are panicking or not being careful enough to slow the spread of the virus should be refocused to get “them in the right direction.”

“I hope we can all come back to school and see each other and be like, ‘Hey, you know, that wasn’t that bad.’ That’s what I’m really hoping for, but if not, we just make the best of it.”

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