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Soon-to-be graduates may miss milestones due to the coronavirus pandemic

First slide

Years from now, they may be known as the Virtual Class of 2020.

Because of the rapid spread of the coronavirus, high schoolers across the diocese — along with virtually everyone else in the country — have been attending classes online-only since mid-March.

"There are most likely people in my grade who I will never see again." Mary Bohli

Public schools are closed through the end of the year, and diocesan schools are following suit.

That could mean no graduation — at least not this spring. 

No prom.

It’s possible none of the end-of-year traditions high school seniors enjoy will actually happen this year, leaving many heartbroken.

Diocesan schools have made no official decision on graduations yet, since the situation remains in such flux.

“It’s definitely a hard pill to swallow,” said Dalton Oylear, a senior at Saint John Paul the Great Catholic High School in Potomac Shores. “People have those dreams of going to prom, that prom dress, or walking across the stage at graduation, throwing the cap in the air. But I guess sometimes it’s not meant to be.”

The new normal

It’s tough for high schoolers to talk about missing out on these end-of-year milestones when they’re not even there yet.

Classes are still being held normally — normal being a relative term — online every day, and they provide students a chance to see their friends through their webcams.

After classes end, many FaceTime each other, the 2020 substitute for hallway chatter.

Then students leave the “classroom” and walk downstairs for supper.

“It’s definitely not the normal, and it’ll never be normal,” Oylear said. “But my school has done a great job in the amount of time they’ve had to put this thing together. I’m sure all the schools have done a good job.”

Mary Bohli, a fellow senior at John Paul the Great, said while online classes are a good substitute, not being there physically “is definitely taking a toll on our class.”

“There are most likely people in my grade who I will never see again,” she said. “Everyone was excited for college, but I think they wanted to enjoy their last bit of high school first.”

The loss of the senior prom is especially cruel.

“When you’re a freshman, sophomore, junior, that’s something you look forward to — getting to be able to go to prom or to graduate,” said Abigail Harrigan, a senior at John Paul the Great. “The milestones, I think that’s what motivates people to get through senior year.”

Harrigan said one of the toughest things for her is not being able to see teachers who’ve “helped us grow the past few years.”

“There’s this math teacher who I think really highly of and she’s helped me tremendously over my high school career,” she said. “Teachers say before going to college, check in with us before you leave, and that’s really difficult not to be able to do that.”

Students are hoping the coronavirus may abate enough to allow for a summer graduation or at least some sort of celebration of seniors. All seniors interviewed for this story hoped to avoid what institutions like Virginia Tech were doing in hosting online graduation ceremonies.

The diocesan Office of Catholic Schools said in an email that each individual school will be in contact with families with guidance “once the situation clarifies itself.”

The cancellation of so many in-person events has more consequences for these high schoolers than one might expect.

SAT tests have been canceled, leaving students applying for college in limbo.

The NCAA has suspended all recruiting through mid-April, though it’s not like spring-sport athletes would even have a game that recruiters could attend.

Bohli, who plays lacrosse at John Paul the Great, said she has friends who were hoping to have college scouts come and watch their games this spring.

“Now they’re not going to have a chance to, and it’s definitely disappointing for (my friends),” she said. “They were so hopeful for that opportunity to play in college and now it seems like there won’t be any hope of that, because seniors can’t get looked at.”

Anyone trying to decide between multiple different colleges no longer have the option for on-campus visits.

“I was still on the fence about colleges and wanted to visit a few, but now I’ll probably have to make a blind decision without revisiting any of the schools because of the closures,” Bohli said.

Finding peace

It’s not just high schoolers grappling with these issues.

Students at colleges in the area also have to adjust to their new remote lives and the reality that graduation may not happen for them.

Annie Sullivan and her friends were planning for a perfectly normal spring break.

None of them knew their last few steps on the campus of Christendom College in Front Royal earlier this month before break could have been their last as students.

“We all were kind of bracing ourselves for the end anyway, looking for jobs and whatnot,” said Sullivan, a senior at the college. “The end could have potentially come sooner than we thought it was going to come.”

Christendom’s Class of 2020 is small, with fewer than 100 students on track to graduate this spring, she said.

“We’re a very tight-knit group and our classes are very small,” Sullivan said. “Not being able to be part of that community for the rest of my senior year, which is such a crucial part of the Christendom experience as a whole, is probably the most devastating part of it all.”

At the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Alexandra Cooper spent much of her time over the last 3 and a half years in and out of the campus ministry office. 

When she got the news that the university was moving classes to online-only, she said she “immediately burst into tears.”

“My friends and I were very heartbroken that we wouldn’t be able to see each other because of social distancing,” said Cooper, a senior. “It was a tough 24 to 48 hours.”

She returned to Alexandria and decided to go to adoration at the Basilica of St. Mary, her home parish.

“I just took it to Jesus, and I said I know you have a plan for this, just please take all these struggles and make of it whatever your will is,” she said. “I was upset but going to adoration and finding that peace there has helped me a lot. I’m in a better mood now.”

The University of Mary Washington has announced its spring graduates will be invited back for a commencement ceremony in the fall.

Christendom College has not yet made an official decision on its commencement, though one is expected by April 6, according to the college’s website.

Marymount University in Arlington has canceled its commencement ceremony planned for May, and it is “exploring alternative commencement options” using student feedback, according to its website.

George Mason University in Fairfax tentatively scheduled its spring commencement for May 22, “if future developments make large gatherings feasible then,” according to its website.

What’s next

It’s uncertain when diocesan high schools may make a decision on graduation ceremonies.

In an email, the diocese’s superintendent of Catholic schools, Joseph Vorbach, said “planning for anything is impeded by uncertainty about when any kind of public gatherings may be possible.”

“Principals are sharing ideas about different creative possibilities in a ‘brainstorming phase’ that has not been coordinated yet,” he said in the email, adding that all schools want to honor their graduates.

Diocesan high schoolers say they are trying to make the most out of this strange situation.

“The quarantine process allows you to spend more time with your family, which is also necessary before college,” Harrigan said.

Oylear said while it may be hard now, “it’s definitely cool to put into perspective of your life.”

“You’ve just got to go with what life throws at you,” he said. “It’s a crazy time to live in.” 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020