Corrected: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of students polled on their college plans. The correct number is 1,100.
Seniors at Chalmette High School in Louisiana are anxious about what will happen with the rest of the academic year, now that schools are closed. Christine Pappis of Newark Memorial High School in Newark, Calif., feels like the senior class of 2020 can’t catch a break. And Melisa Cabascango, a senior from the Bushwick School for Social Justice in Brooklyn, is confused about whether the schoolwork she is now doing at home will count toward graduation.
“I felt like I watched these kids grow up and I remember feeling super upset when they came to me wondering about their senior prom, and what does the rest of the year have for them?” said Chris Dier, an Advanced Placement teacher for lowerclassmen and a mentor for the seniors at Chalmette High, where some 80 percent of students have subsidized meals. “I had to tell them, ‘I don’t know,’ and that was a tough thing to say. I went home that Friday with a really heavy heart.”
Senior year has been a long time coming for the Class of 2020. Now educators are scrambling to help them salvage the end of their K-12 academic careers and successfully launch them into a world where college and job prospects this fall are anything but certain.
Born in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York, most seniors this year were starting 1st grade during the housing crash and subsequent recession. They grew up during both the social media boom and the worst period for mass school shootings in American history, with more than 300 students and staff injured or killed at more than 65 campus shootings since 2017. All that would be cause enough for reflection as they come to the end of their K-12 careers and start to think about what’s next.
And now the new coronavirus has disrupted their lives.
“It makes you pay attention to your surroundings and not take things lightly,” said senior Christine Pappis of Newark Memorial High School in Newark, Calif. “I think a lot of us always had that fear in school, like when you hear the fire alarm, you think twice before exiting a classroom. Now with everything happening, I guess I feel like we can’t catch a break.”
Nationwide, states including Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Oregon, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin are moving to provide flexibility—such as waiving minimum attendance hours or at least some testing or colllege entrance exams, coursework, or senior projects—for seniors who may miss months of class before schools reopen, if they reopen at all this year.
Kansas, for example, lifted minimum attendance hours for seniors and allowed school districts to waive any required credits over the 21-hour state minimum. Wisconsin, which had been in the middle of rolling out new and more rigorous math and science course requirements for graduation, will allow districts to request waivers for students who were on track to complete those credits if school had not been cancelled. At the same time, the state is offering districts aid to provide virtual summer school for students who still need more time to successfully complete their coursework.
Washington, which saw some of the earliest outbreaks of the deadly respiratory disease COVID-19 and subsequent school closures, is allowing districts to waive some graduation credits for students who made “good faith efforts” on classes before their schools closed, and inject some flexibility into students’ individual “high school and beyond” plans to let students receive high school diplomas from the colleges through which they were completing dual-credit courses.
“Given the scope of all of the things districts and staff are trying to address, we recommended prioritizing senior credit requirements because most of them are supposed to be done with their K-12 education experience in June, and many already have a plan in place for their next step following graduation,” said Katy Payne, the communications director for Washington’s state education agency. “Essentially, their needs are more time sensitive and should be addressed quickly to provide maximum time for completing all graduation requirements.”
Payne said school districts are also trying to adapt existing requirements creatively. For example, Olympia-area seniors have started Facebook groups to offer pandemic-related community-service hours: grocery- and supply-runs for elderly and other vulnerable families; tutoring for peers and younger students to relieve teleworking parents; support for the district’s food distribution programs, and so on. Senior Chandler Sam at Olympia High School organized his classmates to put together meals at the local food bank for families who could not leave their homes.
Oregon is considering similar guidance this week that would allow school districts to lower the number of credits required for graduation or adapt math and reading credit requirements to match the time students had spent in school before the closures.
Even so, many seniors said they’ve been confused about whether and how the work they do during the closures will get credit.
“Most of the work that we’re being given now, nobody’s telling us that it’s going to count or how important it is going to be,” said Melisa Cabascango, a senior from the Bushwick Campus of the Brooklyn School for Social Justice, a public high school in New York. For example, she said, she’s trying to finish a 10-page English essay and a 20-page Advanced Placement research paper, both assigned before the closure. Her economics teacher sent out a game-style assignment during the closure, but then added a three-page reflective essay which she was told would count for a third of her class credit. She said she’s not clear on how any of the assignments will be graded at this point.
“I don’t feel like the graduation requirements are being relaxed at all,” said Cabascango, who is also an organizer for a youth group, Make the Road. “I feel like instead, we’re being handed out more work than what we’ve done in class.”
In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam announced March 23 that schools would be closed for the rest of the school year, and districts will be allowed to waive a variety of credits for graduation or provide alternate pathways for students who have enough credits but not enough “clock hours” for a standard diploma.
Classes continue online across the state, and at Yorktown High School in Arlington, Va., seniors Alec Ellison and Joseph Ramos are studying for Advanced Placement tests, but said it’s unclear to them how the tests will ultimately be held or graded. They’re not sure yet whether they will be able to receive college credit for the courses.
“I think people were, are still sort of scrambling,” Ellison said. “There’s a lot of things still up in the air, but we’re still sort of reeling from the announcement.”
Ramos said he had earned enough credits for a diploma, but will lose a crucial career-related educational opportunity: the “senior experience,” a three-week, 100-hour work-study program in May, which many graduating students use to explore potential fields or even summer jobs.
Ramos, the editor of his school newspaper, had been looking forward to working with his community paper, the Arlington Now, but that internship, like prom, beach week, and graduation, is off.
“It stinks more, because we went through the stressful part of the first half of senior year, the part where you’re finding out if you get into college, and these were the things we were looking forward to,” he said; instead of relaxing, he and his classmates have been faced with more stress from trying to finish classes online and worrying about the virus itself.
Ellison was offered a spot on the University of Rochester baseball team in the fall, but is missing his senior baseball season and has gotten little practice time on the local playing fields, which are closed because of the stay-home order. For now, he’s working out in his garage and trying to stay in contact with his now-former teammates.
“It’s odd because before the shutdown for the whole year and the closed parks, I would go out and throw the baseball with some teammates to keep my arm loose and work out, and we’d go onto the Yorktown football field and there’d be like 50 kids out there all working out,” he said, “and then yesterday when I went to check if it was open, it was just dead silence.”
For Newark Memorial High School in Newark, Calif,. closure has already been extended once until May 1, and Pappis thinks it’s not likely to reopen soon in the heavily virus-exposed San Francisco Bay area.
Pappis and her friends “are currently on a stay-at-home order, so we have not seen each other for almost two weeks,” she said. “I do know a few people who have tried to hang out and ended up with a $400 fine.”
Her friends talk for hours via FaceTime each night as they try to stay occupied at home, but Pappis said she misses seeing them in person. They’re disappointed that spring sports and the class trip to Disneyland have been cancelled, hoping against hope that the school will find an “alternative” to prom and the graduation ceremony.
Making the Transition
Pappis also has enough credits to graduate, but the stay-home order in the Bay area has thrown her college plans for a loop.
“I’m going to have to blindly pick a school, because my plan was to visit campuses two weeks from now,” she said.
Instead, she’s been looking over college YouTube videos and viewing virtual tours, but it’s been harder to get deeper information to compare programs in sociology, her intended major. “I’m hoping I’ll be able to pick wisely with whatever online resources are available, but it’s definitely frustrating.”
She’s not alone. The Class of 2020 likely will need more help than normal with transitions after high school, too. With unemployment skyrocketing and the economy unsteady, it will be harder for students who were planning to go directly into the workforce, but additional waves of coronavirus could delay college openings in the fall, too.
About 1 in 4 seniors and juniors are rethinking college plans in the wake of the COVID-19 closures, according to a new 50-state survey of 1,100 U.S. seniors and juniors by the college recruiting firm Cirkled In, with 69 percent expecting to have a harder time paying for college, and others reluctant to start higher education classes that may also be online-only.
American Institutes of Research scientists Susan Therriault and Alexandria Walton Radford said that without support from both high schools and colleges, there is likely to be higher than usual “summer melt,” in which high school graduates who say they plan to go to college never show up on campus in the fall.
“I think it’s important to just recognize the equity issue here in just how much more critical that school counselor is in providing that college guidance when students don’t have parents who have postsecondary experience or don’t have many people in their social network that have postsecondary experience,” said Walton Radford, the director of the Center for Applied Research in Postsecondary Education at AIR. “With schools closed, folks are going to be more and more reliant on their families for help with college guidance, and may not have it.”
For example, Cabascango has been part of New York’s Great Girls program, which, she said, provides mentors to help students apply for scholarships and college, “write our personal statements, and make sure we’re on track to graduate—and not just that, but just emotional support as well.” The program was put on hold when the city shut down in response to the coronavirus spread. While individual mentors have been trying to reach out, she said, “it’s been harder to do it virtually ... rather than being in person and being able to like actually talk to the person, because, like, I feel like when they’re in a conference call, like on Zoom, you don’t really get to say everything exactly or get to receive the same help that you would in person.”
In Josh Tripp’s senior year in 1998, ice storms shut down Maine schools for two weeks, leaving the students to make do with work packets and generators.
“Everything was a crisis, but it wasn’t like a full blown health crisis that we’re having locally now,” said Tripp, now the principal of Bucksport High School in Maine, which moved to remote learning last week.
“We’re supposed to take SATs in the second week of April. That’s just not going to happen, we don’t know what that’s going to look like--and quite frankly, it’s the last thing on my worry list,” Tripp said. While he’s confident his school will be able to help students complete the credits they need to graduate, other things will be harder to replace.
“I’ve had 18-year-old boys, some of the roughest, toughest, you-can’t-hurt-me type boys, and you know, when they found out that spring sports, there’s a good chance it could be canceled, there were tears. That’s what they’d been building up for, their senior baseball season and you take it away from them,” Tripp said.
“I’m wondering how do we at least give them something, right?” Tripp said. “If it is just that one thing that they’ve looked forward to for 13 years from pre-K to your senior year—senior prom and spring sports and class graduation—how do we make school still important to them without it? How do we make some of our kids not want to just give up because the only thing that was keeping them engaged was to walk across that stage in front of Grandma and Grandpa?”
“You know, that’s probably what keeps me up at night,” he said. “We’ll figure everything else out, but if prom and graduation and all that starts to go, it’s not like I can bring them back with a note in October [to redo those events], ‘cause they’ll be all spread out.”
In Louisiana, state Teacher of the Year Dier penned an open letter to his Class of 2020, sympathizing and urging them to keep moving forward with their lives and education.
“There is this glimmer of inspiration that you can find at times like these, and I wanted to let them know that, because I wish I would have heard that as a senior in high school, when [Hurricane] Katrina was happening. Nobody was really talking about its impact on seniors,” Dier said.
Dier’s own senior year had been thrown for a loop two weeks into the 2005 fall semester, when the Category 5 storm flooded Chalmette under some 30 feet of water for weeks and cast Dier and his family to Texas, where they lived in shelters and homes, paycheck to paycheck.
“It was a really tough time, and I have teachers to thank for getting me through it in Louisiana and in Texas,” he said. “So I wanted to do that, do something like that for my students.
“Teachers should be involved in their students’ lives in terms of not just academic needs, but supporting their emotional needs, figuring out different inequities that might exist, and trying not to exacerbate them. It’s tough, but that’s what we do now. We just have to do it from afar,” he said.