Instead, they will recall the initial surprise of schools closing in mid March due to the COVID-19 Pandemic along with the shock when they remained closed for weeks, likely never to reopen before their last year in high school ends.
Several seniors at Signal Mountain High School shared reactions about their world being turned upside down within a matter of days.
Caroline Cornett said, “The Thursday and Friday before we got out certainly felt surreal as the coronavirus grew in scale, but I could not have anticipated how much it would affect us.”
Many seniors spent the first few days in denial about the whole situation. Emma Smith said, “But as time has gone on, we’re coming to realize that our high school experience is over.”
Ethan Fell admitted, “It was shocking, to say the least. To be completely honest, it seemed like such a distant reality that none of us truly took it seriously at first. I hate to say it now, but many of us were joking about it until the days leading up to the closure. We came from a point of privilege and felt like we would never be impacted, so when schools finally shut down, it was a very sobering moment for all of us.”
Maggie Meller agreed, saying, “It all happened so suddenly, and that’s the craziest thing. I never anticipated this happening, and I certainly never anticipated it affecting prom, graduation, and my last day of high school.”
Still in disbelief, Devin Kodsi said, that when students were briefed that last Friday, “I had a feeling that we would be out for much longer than I had previously anticipated.”
Cornett’s first reaction was “actually just worrying about when I would turn in assignments and how I would study for the (IB) exams this May.”
That’s why Sophia Fowler’s first reaction was relief. “I felt like I had so much work to do and the break would give me some more time to do it,” she said. “All of my friends were saying ‘HAGS’ (have a great summer), and I thought that was a little ridiculous - surely [school] wouldn’t close for the entire rest of the school year. But here we are ...”
In wonderment, Stella Sherrill said, “I never thought this situation would spiral the way it has now.”
Michael Lancaster had hoped schools would be closed only for the two weeks initially announced. “I was worried about my track season,” he said, “and finishing all of my requirements remaining for the IB diploma.”
Completing year-end work was a concern for all students, but especially for those enrolled in the full International Baccalaureate or Diploma Programme.
The global organization cancelled IB exams worldwide due to the pandemic, which meant DP students lost that opportunity to generate extra points. So, their focus shifted from studying for exams to finishing Internal Assessments (IAs) since those would now play a larger role in determining final IB scores.
“Finishing IB assignments was an unexpected, but brutal challenge,” Fell said. “For chemistry students, in particular, some of us couldn’t even start our mandatory research project until the last day before school closed. I remember getting an email from my teacher at 8 a.m. that Friday, letting me know that I only had until the end of the school day to finish my lab work. I ended up having to miss several classes that afternoon just so I could get my initial data,” he said, “and even then, I didn’t have enough time to finish the project.”
Since students couldn’t bring chemicals home to work with them, Fell and other students continued to work individually with their teacher to solve issue. “It’s incredibly difficult,” Fell said, “to take a process that would usually be worked out in a classroom and adjust it to work online.”
Cornett admitted, “I definitely had to challenge myself to understand topics in some science classes, especially as we have moved into new units.”
Sherrill said, “The biggest adjustment for me was definitely maintaining my school schedule in my home environment, and I certainly had to adjust to the lack of face-to-face contact with my teachers.”
The school’s administration team worked with lead teachers on a schedule of when video conferences for specific classes could be conducted, which made things go much smoother for Week No. 2 and beyond.
Cornett said “classes that typically have a lot of discussion, like English and foreign language, have certainly felt a bit different when we can’t all talk through our interpretations of the texts we read.” She complimented teachers for scheduling Zoom video conferences “so we can still connect and discuss content as a group.”
Meller agreed distance learning was a challenge. “It’s difficult enough to focus on schoolwork when we’re in school,” she said. “When you take away the physical building and so much of the interaction with peers and teachers, it’s exponentially more difficult to focus and get stuff done.”
Self-motivation was a challenge for many. “With IB exams being cancelled, it’s even more difficult to work for classes in which I won’t be tested,” Kodsi said. “However, I continue to remind myself that our growth as learners is never-ending, and that, despite the cancellation of exams, I will continue to work to further my learning-based development.”
Senior students had to make other adjustments as quarantines were enacted to prevent interaction, as much as possible, with people outside your own family.
All admitted to spending more time on online social platforms than usual to connect with friends.
“Our generation has grown up communicating online, so the social distancing thing is really not that inaccessible for us,” Fowler said. “We can Face Time, Snap Chat, DM (Direct Message), or text message each other as we always have.” She said the biggest impact on her socially was not being able to go anywhere, like out to eat or to a movie or to the beach for spring break.
Sherrill found it difficult to adjust to “not being able to see my friends, other seniors, or my teachers at school.”
“It’s definitely been odd not being able to hop in the car and go somewhere whenever I feel like hanging out with someone,” Fell said.
While they appreciated seeing some classmates on video conferences, Kodsi noted, “It’s not the same experience as going to school every day and truly being there learning alongside others.”
In addition to using social media platforms, Cornett also enjoyed seeing people “out and about on errands or while working out to stay in shape. The biggest difference, she said, “has been in losing the sense of community you get from talking to people in class or in the hallways, because missing the shared experience of day-to-day school routines and challenges really has made me realize how much interaction we find in those little moments.”
Smith grieves missed opportunities.
“I’ve come to realize that the worst thing about missing out on these last weeks of high school is that I’m missing the last opportunities I’ll ever have to spend time with my school friends,” she said. “I’ve got plenty of close friends who I’ll keep in touch with throughout my life, but what about the ones whose company I really enjoy in school, but who I never got close to,” she pondered. “None of us had time to adjust to the idea that we won’t be seeing much of those people anymore, so that’s the worst part to me.”
Sherrill expressed similar sentiments.
“Mostly, I miss the ability to make those in-person memories with my fellow seniors in our last year of high school,” she said. “I miss having the closure that a senior feels on the last day they walk through the school where, for some of us, we have spent the last seven years of our lives.”
Foster Wood agreed.
“We miss seeing each other and experiencing the last goodbyes to our teachers and all the friends we made,” he said. “Those last few months as a high schooler to spend time with your childhood friends has slipped away.”
Wood is able to finish high school as a member of the golf team that snagged its third consecutive State Title last fall. However, students playing spring sports were barely able to start their season before it was all shut down.
“Without any doubt, I miss my cross country and track teammates the most,” Lancaster said. “I was so excited for my last track season ever, especially after our cross country state championship win in the fall.”
Our high school track teams were set to run their first Invitational the weekend that schools closed. “We were all excited at first [about school closings] because we thought we would only miss one or two races,” Lancaster said, “but now that this has progressed, I regret ever being excited for the cancellation.”
Students in all sports have continued to follow training schedules to the best of their abilities, even though some have noted it’s not as fun to do alone.
“I believe it’s because we are all holding onto the little bit of structure that we can still control in our lives right now,” Lancaster said. “I would do anything to have another practice with my teammates before the spring season ends.”
Soccer player Enrique Garcia agrees. “I miss being out in the fields with my friends and teammates,” he said. “It [stinks] that the sports have been cancelled,” Garcia said. “Some are more accepting than others, but the seniors in general are more disappointed. Most of us didn’t expect the last game or practice to be our last so soon.”
All are grateful for the very few soccer, tennis, and lacrosse matches, baseball and softball games, and indoor track meets held before schools closed. While many hope for a miracle so that they can compete again as a team before they leave high school, most have given up.
“To the young ones, I can say that there will be another year and season and to keep grinding,” Garcia said. “To the seniors, I can say that it was fun while it lasted, but that it’s probably over now. The only thing we can do is to go out with a positive mindset instead of a negative one.”
Several seniors noted that lack of commitments to extracurricular activities has given them time to explore new things. “I’ve been able to focus on myself in ways that I haven’t been able to for years,” Meller said.
“I’ve found myself trying out new things, like baking, and I’m able to engage in more physical activity, journal more, and try out new creative outlets that I’ve been pushing aside for a long time.”
Cornett has appreciated extra time to read and discover new interests through TV, where she’s been really interested in the “Great British Bake Off.”
Kodsi feels “much more mentally stable” with 8 1/2 hours of sleep and discovered that he enjoys running outside in his neighborhood, which he said provides a nice break from school work and helps him feel less secluded at home.
Gracie Bradford was devastated when schools closed because she had been on medical homebound school since Christmas break for foot and ankle surgery and was excited about returning to school after spring break. “I mostly miss spending time with my teachers and my friends,” she said, “especially my marching band family!”
To help with the latter and to fill time, Bradford taught herself to sew and quilt, enjoying fond memories of her grandmother creating beautiful garments and blankets.
“I decided to make a keepsake of all of my high school marching band memories so I sewed all of my band shirts and pants into a blanket,” said Bradford, who also has sewn masks to donate to local healthcare facilities.
After commiserating with classmates about what they’re missing, Meller, as Student Body President, encouraged seniors in a letter to “Reach out to a neighbor (from a safe six feet). Learn a new craft, and use it to put good out into the world. Make blankets for a children’s hospital. Take an online class in something outside of what you’re required to learn. Do something other than sitting around. Make the most of your moment,” she said, “and you will do amazing things.”
In like fashion, Bradford said, “I strongly urge everyone to find a hobby that brings them joy; lend the world your light as you shine in the dark places.”
Graduation – Yes/No?
While it would be nice to have a late prom or some kind of dance or social gathering, the big question on seniors’ minds is graduation.
“I hope that, if all else fails, graduation will be postponed to a later date,” Sherrill said, “so that we can still experience the closure that we’ve worked for nearly all of our lives.”
Lancaster agreed. “Having watched two older sisters graduate before me, I feel a little entitled to having my own graduation ceremony,” he said. “Naturally, this could only happen if stay-at-home orders have been lifted. I am willing to skip graduation if it helps the entire population,” he said, “but I would love to walk across the stage if I had that option.”
Fowler agreed. “It would just be gratifying,” she said, “to walk across the stage and hear my name called to receive a diploma that I’ve been working for so diligently.”
Kodsi concurred, but only if the threat of the virus has drastically decreased.
At the Mirror’s press time, Hamilton County Schools had postponed all graduations and hoped to reschedule or offer an alternative.
Principal Shane Harwood encouraged seniors, saying, “Hang in there! Know that you are in the thoughts of your teachers and school family every day, and that we are so sorry that your senior year is being affected.
“Our hope is that we can get back together soon to experience some of your senior memories together in person,” he said, “but if the circumstances and timelines do not allow, know that we are doing all we can to plan creative ways to still make those memories.”
Senior teacher sponsors introduced a SMMHS Seniors Soar project in early April to spotlight each student individually on the school’s social media and were considering yard signs, as well.
Senior parents and others are committed to providing our seniors some kind of event to give closure to their high school years.
It wouldn’t have to be a formal affair, said Fell, who serves on the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Committee, which will be consulted regarding any rescheduled proms or graduations.“I think everyone would just appreciate the opportunity to get together one final time and dance, see each other, and celebrate all of our accomplishments,” he said. “In the end, these events were always about being together.”
Senior mom and SMMHS teacher Julie Perez agreed as she complimented her son, Keegan, for handling changes with honesty, grace, and optimism amid the loss of treasured times with friends during this “precious season of life.”
“These seniors have lost a lot, but they have also been given an amazing gift,” Perez said. “The loss they have experienced has taught them to treasure their moments and their friendships; it has taught them to be resilient; it has taught them to be okay with being sad, even while they hope and plan for better things ahead; it has taught them that the decisions they make have an impact on others; it has taught them that the journey toward the goal is worthwhile, even if the end doesn’t look as was expected.”
So, how will the COVID-19 pandemic impact the lives of our seniors going forward?
“First and foremost, I think this pandemic will definitely make us appreciate our world’s teachers more,” Kodsi said. “They applied to be a teacher to help kids learn in an academic setting, not via technology, but the virus has completely shifted their jobs as educators,” he noted. “These teachers are having to travel through uncharted waters in order to ensure the continuation of learning despite the mess in which we find ourselves, and I believe that their efforts during these times will not go unnoticed.”
Both Kodsi and Fell expect COVID-19 to also impact their freshman year of college, either as an extension of the current pandemic or as a potential second wave in the fall.
Fowler believes the pandemic will “make people, a least for a minute, a bit more cautious about germs and how readily they spread. I have been a germophobe my whole life,” she said, “but I think it might be helpful for everyone to be a bit of one.”
Wood joked that we could all become “well sanitized extroverts for a while.”
On a more serious note, he hopes the pandemic will result “in an increase in sustainable and independent living techniques among the population of the United States, as well as an increase in personal accountability and acknowledgement of the larger impacts of our actions.”
Cornett believes that, “Going forward, I think life as we know it will be a little different. “Many technological services have seen an enormous increase in usage, and this new state of connectivity could change how we work, take classes, and connect with out-of-state friends and family on a regular basis.
“In terms of the economy,” Cornett continued, “my grade will be entering the professional workforce in just a few years, and there will likely be many new jobs relating to working closely with technology and global health.
“I have also read online,” she said, “that the pandemic could reshape domestic vs. international supply chains and affect the general state of how we produce and consume a lot of essential products, which could be interesting.”
All agree that being in a class born as our country was reeling from 9/11 and leaving high school during a pandemic and starting college in its aftermath will give them a unique perspective on life and a good story to tell their children and grandchildren.
Bradford hopes “the world learns to be grateful for everything good in life, share with the less fortunate, and show kindness to each other.”
by Melissa Barrett