Class of 2020: All dressed up in caps and gowns, no place to go

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For the Class of 2020, it’s celebration without “the sizzle”.

The prom. The awards dinners. The senior trip, the yearbook-signing, and the cherry on top, a star turn picking up a diploma at commencement. This is the time of year when tradition rolls out red-carpet moments and lifelong memories for graduates—a rug, sadly, that was yanked out from under them in March. All over America, from middle-schoolers moving up, to high school and college students ready to move on, Covid-19 wronged the Class of 2020 of a normal rite of passage.

That left everyone from the students and their parents to their teachers and school administrators doing their best to turn lemons into lemonade. Education went online. So did maintaining connections with friends. Likewise, graduation ceremonies this year are digital productions assembled from prerecorded speeches and hundreds of selfies of graduates at home in their caps and gowns, all dressed up with no place to go.

“In a lot of ways,” says Sequoia High School Principal Sean Priest of the June 5 cyber-ceremony, “it’s the same general format as a live in-person graduation, you just don’t have the crowd and the sunshine and the football field and the band and all that stuff.” There’s nothing inherently fun about distributing caps and gowns, he adds, and “what makes it cool is all the pomp and circumstance.”

The circumstance behind the de-pomped graduations arrived via a delayed-action fuse, as restrictions ordered by San Mateo County Health Officer Dr. Scott Morrow deepened. Schools initially were to close from March 16 to April 3, but the whole semester imploded with the extended shelter-in-place order. The Friday the 13th when students and school officials went home, they didn’t know they were saying goodbye.

This story was originally published in the June edition of Climate Magazine. To view the magazine online, click on this link.

“There’s a genuine relationship that students and staff form over the course of four years together,” Priest continues. “And the end of the year there are so many different activities that provide an opportunity for both the students and the staff to have closure to that relationship.” Everyone is always excited to see the graduates move on, he adds, but “there’s a lot, I think, of trauma and mourning about these relationships being severed really unexpectedly and instantaneously.”

Virtual Graduations

Andres Raddavero, 18, is a Carlmont High School senior who is a student trustee to the Sequoia Union High School District Board. “It hurt a bit at first because that last day, we thought we’d be back in three weeks from then,” he says. Many of his classmates have been together since elementary school, he notes. “We’re going to have a virtual graduation. It’s better than nothing but it’s not what we were expecting a couple of months ago.”

Before school ended, Tara DuBridge, 18, did track and was on the basketball team at Summit Preparatory Charter High School, as well as serving as a volunteer mentor to 11th graders in a cultural exchange program. “I can’t participate in most of the things that I really enjoy doing as a high school student,” says the Belmont resident, who has to content herself with practicing the clarinet and oboe at home. “So having it kind of taken away so quickly, it was shocking really.”

Students like Sequoia High’s Student Body Vice President Anika Huisman, 17, try to put their disappointment in perspective.

“I’ve been like trying to really get myself to think about the big picture rather than the few events that we’ve been missing,” she says. “… I know it’s important to stay inside and to stay apart from everybody. But I think we’ve all worked really hard for these moments and we’ve kind of used them to motivate us to keep going. So just like knowing that, it just feels like all the hard work that we put in doesn’t really count for anything.”

Woodside High School senior Jack Cruzan, 18, of Redwood City has tried to focus on activities he enjoys including skateboarding, working on his car and playing video games, rather than on not being able to “walk up and get a diploma and shake hands … I can’t really change that. There’s not really a big point in dwelling on that. It is what it is.”

Since normal school life went into suspension, administrators, teachers —and parents—have tried to do what they can to adapt to remote learning, keep up morale and provide year-end alternatives to make 2020 memorable, in a different way.

Adrian Dilley, who teaches tennis, weight-training, track and field and other sports to ninth graders at Sequoia, found technology “tough to say the least” in teaching PE. Kids were given suggested workouts with fitness logs to track their activity and submit reports weekly. YouTube was useful in teaching golf history and technique, but both teachers and students missed the face-to-face interaction.

“It’s our routine,” Dilley says. “When people are out of their routines, motivation, interest and communication declines. It’s just not the same.”

Academic and sports awards nights were all canceled, along with assemblies and graduation night trips. “It’s all gone,” says Sequoia district trustee Georgia Jack. “It’s really sad because April and May are huge both on high school and college campuses, the spring events that bring the community together.”

A Windows Tradition Broken

Woodside High graduates didn’t get to write their names and future plans on windows overlooking the quad, as is the tradition, so an Instagram website was created, according to Zorina Matavulj, the school’s college and career advisor. She and other staff were printing and assembling 200 to 300 certificates in May to mail to students for a “virtual” awards ceremony.

Kids won’t get to sign each other’s yearbooks. Woodside’s won’t arrive until September and will be mailed, Matavulj says, though Sequoia High principal Priest hopes to be able to distribute the 2020 book the week after graduation, along with diplomas.

Drive-up Distribution

Caps and gowns were given out to 400-plus graduates at the two schools in early May. At Sequoia, a team of staff and parents led by Linda Burt tried to juice up the distribution with balloons, signs and music, cheering on the students driving up in their cars. Sequoia’s Alumni Association slipped a flyer into each graduation packet with a lifetime membership offer at no charge. It would have cost $20.20, according to association secretary Nancy Oliver. “We decided this year that the seniors have missed out on so many things, and we feel really bad for them.”

Says Priest: “It’s not the steak, it’s the sizzle. We’re trying to find the sizzle in these activities. They’re in a different format but I think we can still make them special.”

Fifty-three students in Taylor White’s advanced dance class at Sequoia had spent months choreographing and rehearsing routines for the 51st annual show, only to see the campus close before she had a chance to at least record it. Tradition calls for presenting each senior with a rose bouquet at the end of the performance.

Taylor decided the show must go virtual. “Pop your parents down in a chair in front of you when you’re on stage,” she instructed the students, “turn your camera on and when you go off stage, just turn it off.” The “stages” were living rooms, garages and yards, but thanks to Zoom technology, the dancers not only got to perform, the show will live on video. Digital and Performing Arts Boosters and parents made sure the 30 seniors got their roses, home-delivered. In a post-event chat, one senior thanked Taylor for creating memories: “Even though they’re different, we’re still going to cherish them very much.”

Transitions Stalled

Though businesses and activities in the county are emerging from life on hold, for the Class of 2020, moving on to a next stage presents unique dilemmas. Starting with the graduation party.

Monica Cryan isn’t sure how to celebrate son Jack’s graduation. “I don’t think any of his friends’ parents will let any of them do anything because it’s like taboo right now to socially congregate,” she says. Jack has been able to get out of the house to tinker on his car and work part-time at Trader Joe’s. “He’ll go to work extra hours because it’s the only place he’s allowed to go without getting his hand slapped,” his mother says.

She feels badly because 18 should be a time of transition to independence, but Jack, who has been accepted at UC Santa Cruz, may be stuck at home if classes aren’t in person. His senior trip to Europe this summer got cancelled as well. “It’s like they have nothing right now to really look forward to,” is his mother’s regretful summation.

Raddavero, the Carlmont senior, speculates that his family will do what they did for Mother’s Day—visit his grandparents at their home in Palo Alto, gathered on the patio, talking to them on the phone. “We hang outside,” he explains. “They hang out inside. We eat on the outdoor table.”

Matavulj says some of the kids she counseled at Woodside who were undecided between a two- and a four-year college will now opt for community college. A few say they are going to take a year off. But with a crashed job market and travel prospects sketchy, “it’s almost like they are more nervous about that because that’s more unknown even than college.”

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