Accessibility links

Breaking News

During COVID, High School Students Find Other Ways to Celebrate End of Senior Year

From left, Abby Becker, Kaylee Power, and Lily Monahan, graduating from Cumberland High School in Cumberland, Rhode Island, have been best friends since eighth grade.(Geiselman Imagery)
From left, Abby Becker, Kaylee Power, and Lily Monahan, graduating from Cumberland High School in Cumberland, Rhode Island, have been best friends since eighth grade.(Geiselman Imagery)

They are an unorthodox generation. The class of 2020 was born while the United States was still reeling from the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Their world has been filled with unpredictability since day one.

Members of the class of 2020 finish their senior year of high school after being confined to their homes for weeks, losing out on some of the most highly anticipated rituals of the American teenager: sports championships, dance recitals, senior trips, prom and graduation.

“I did not realize that March 13th was my last day at school,” said Cassidy Goebel of Evansville Day School in Midwestern U.S. state of Indiana, by email. “One of my friends was joking around and said: ‘C’mon guys, let’s give hugs like the last day of school.’ We all just laughed and said, ‘Sure.’ I wish I would have hugged my friends tighter that day.”

Chinese Exchange-Student Valedictorian Becomes Backyard Prom King
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:02:53 0:00

Cassidy’s sister Sierra was a senior this year, too. Their class had only 18 people.

“Our class was like a family,” Sierra Goebel said, also by email. She said she felt the loss of little things as well as big rituals: “It was supposed to be the time where you sat in the hall telling the ridiculous memories you had here.”

She said she and her friends tried to cheer each other up remotely, using phone and video chats. They are hoping to schedule a “do-over” prom for July.

Another classmate, Neha Bhasin, had been scheduled for an experiential learning trip to Puerto Rico the week before spring break. It was canceled.

“I was devastated,” she said. “Instead of getting to leave with such an amazing experience, the idea of spending that week remote learning was frustrating.” She said it was hard to finish nine years at the small private school without a proper goodbye.

The cusp of adulthood

While high school rituals may not seem important in the face of a pandemic – or the anti-racism protests that have since gripped the nation – high school counselor Franciene Sabens of southern Illinois says these quintessentially American traditions represent much to kids at the cusp of adulthood.

“These activities (and now losses) are tied to a student’s social identity,” Sabens said. She said the end-of-high-school rituals “allow them opportunities for self-expression, to practice social skills in a formal setting, and an opportunity to make beautiful, and often final memories with their classmates and friends before graduating high school.”

She added that some students start planning for prom – the final, formal dance of the year – as early as December.

Phil Sturm of Chevy Chase, Maryland, has three grown daughters and a Chinese exchange student, Yichen Zhang, who has become “like the son I never had,” he said.

“My daughters, who really consider him to be their brother, decided that ... if there was going to be no prom [at school], that there was going to be a prom for their brother” at home, Sturm said. Yichen’s girlfriend, a Chinese student from Boston University, was staying with them as well. So all of the family members dressed up, put on music, and crowned Yichen and his girlfriend the prom king and queen.

Documenting losses

Sabens noted that different events are special to different people.

“To some, prom was a colossal loss,” she said. “To others, their band trip was the biggest loss of their life ... and others feel like their life will never be the same without their senior year sports season.”

Documenting those losses has helped some Rhode Island students cope. Brock Geiselman is a photographer and assistant coach for the basketball team at his alma mater, Cumberland High School in Cumberland, Rhode Island.

Geiselman set out to make portraits of athletes on the grounds of the school in their caps and gowns, posing with their athletic equipment. As more students caught wind of the project, Geiselman decided, “we’re going to incorporate something that they’ve lost. I just incorporated everything.” (One of the losses was access to sports uniforms, which are owned by the school, so he took cap-and-gown photos instead.)

Kids posed for Geiselman with their drum kits, their trophies, their catcher’s mitts, their mountain bikes. Families paid for the picture with donations, in sums from $10 to $300.

Brendan Wright of Cumberland High School, Cumberland, Rhode Island, will play baseball at West Point next year. (Geiselman Imagery)
Brendan Wright of Cumberland High School, Cumberland, Rhode Island, will play baseball at West Point next year. (Geiselman Imagery)

Geiselman is using the proceeds to buy grocery and restaurant gift cards for families struggling to make ends meet. At last count, the total proceeds were around $7,500.

Kaylee Powers lost out on a senior trip to Disney World with her two best friends, Abby Becker and Lily Monahan.

“Our last day of school was the day they canceled the Disney trip,” she said. “That day, Disney closed.”

But the girls did gather for a final time as seniors on school property for a photo session.

The three girls have been taking pre-event photos together at Abby’s house since freshman year. A day or two after the photo was taken, they each took a solitary walk across the graduation stage. The event took place over several days to accommodate social distancing guidelines.

And so, it turns out, the Class of 2020 closes with a lesson in resilience.

Party barn

Amy Griffin runs an “entertainment farm” in Helena, Alabama, where she and her husband rent out their barn and farmland for parties. She and her husband staged an alternative prom for area students on June 5.

“It was an amazing way for us to provide for our business that has been struggling since closing down the first of March, while also giving back to the community,” she said.

Some 200 students showed up, paying $30 a ticket. The dance was held in a large party barn with barn doors left open for ventilation. Tables outside were spaced throughout the barnyard for social distancing. The Griffins strung lights in the trees and kept the petting zoo open for extra fun. Attendees were given masks to wear, although not all attendees used them.

Griffin said all went well, except the weather.

“About an hour into the dance, a rainstorm came through – but it was laughable,” she said. “After all, what would an event honoring the class of 2020 be without something unexpected happening?”

She noted that no one complained, despite doused bonfires and wet decorations. On the contrary, she said, “Anytime one of them passed my husband and I during the dance, they thanked us,” she said. “As each of them left the dance at the end, they graciously thanked us again. Every single one of them.”