For the average high school student, the final months of their senior year are what makes their hard work over the previous 12 years worth it.
But for the Class of 2020, things are different. This year, there will be no class trips or senior proms, barbecues or celebration nights.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused schools to be shut down in mid-March, the final months of high school have been unsettling for the Class of 2020.
“It’s upsetting knowing that I’m not going to be able to walk across the stage in that cap and gown,” said Mackenzie Wakefield, Anacortes High School Associated Student Body (ASB) president. “I’ve been in this school district for pretty much my entire life. For 12 years I’ve been working up to this moment.”
For many districts, graduation will take place in some form or another, but it won’t be what previous high school seniors experienced.
“The biggest thing is having a normal graduation and seeing the community there supporting you,” said Mary Lou Page, the La Conner High School ASB president.
Still, the Class of 2020 is trying to stay positive. After all, their high school careers haven’t just been about the learning, but the bonds they’ve built with each other.
“Our class was always the underdogs,” said Sedro-Woolley High School ASB President Megan Friend of the tight-knit senior class. “I feel like everyone sees us now and is feeling for us and is admiring all the work we’ve done. We’ve worked so hard to get to this point and it’s not going unnoticed.”
Skagit student leaders were asked by the Skagit Valley Herald to share their thoughts on the loss of the final three months of their high school careers.
THE THINGS THEY’VE LOST
When schools throughout the state closed March 17, many high school seniors looked at the closure as a welcome extension of spring break.
They didn’t know it would be their last day as high school students.
“I did not realize that was going to be my last time in the school seeing my friends in person,” Wakefield said. “That was really disappointing for me to hear that.”
When Gov. Jay Inslee announced April 6 that schools would remain closed at least throughout the rest of the school year, the loss really began to sink in.
“I’ve gone to La Conner my whole life,” Page said. “I know all the faculty and most of the students too. I wasn’t ready to let go of that part yet.”
Mount Vernon High School ASB President Renad Alsilimy was especially sad for classmates who are the first high school graduates in their families.
“My heart definitely went out to our first-generation students,” Alsilimy said. “That’s a huge accomplishment, and to not be able to celebrate this huge accomplishment, that’s a big deal.”
In 2016, some Skagit County high schools began a tradition of having their seniors parade through the elementary schools they attended — a tradition of which Friend is sad to have her class miss out.
She was looking forward to going back to Big Lake Elementary School.
“We worked so hard for this,” Friend said.
Burlington-Edison High School ASB President Brylee Axelson Ney said she was looking forward to completing her final track season.
“I’ve been friends with those girls for three, four years,” Axelson Ney said. “We thought we still had one more season together. But we didn’t.”
When she and other students first heard that schools would be shut down — at the time for six weeks — they played sad music, she said.
“It’s our senior year,” she said. “We wanted to spend time together.”
With only 34 seniors in their Class of 2020, La Conner High School seniors have become like a family, Page said.
“Our teachers tell us all the time that we’re like a bunch of siblings,” Page said. “We definitely do fight all the time like siblings would. But the amount of love that we have for each other is amazing.”
A highlight of the year was supposed to be a class trip to Disneyland in California — a trip they’ve been fundraising for since freshman year.
That too is canceled, as is the school play, which would have been Page’s swan song in the drama department.
“Every year at the final show we honor the seniors and do a little remembrance for them,” she said. “So it’s kind of upsetting to not have that this year.”
For the 25 Concrete High School seniors — many of whom who have spent their whole academic lives together in the district — the pandemic and closure of schools has made it so they can’t experience what ASB President Troy Schmidt called “rites of passage.”
“I was bummed to find out that those aren’t going to happen, at least not in the traditional manner for sure,” Schmidt said. “I think the majority (of students) are bummed out. I think they understand also but are still bummed out.”
The seniors were supposed to spend a weekend at Lake Chelan, but that was canceled.
As a small class, Concrete High School seniors have often struggled to raise funds and win school spirit competitions, Schmidt said.
That’s changed in recent years, he said, as members of the class have pulled together and learned to work with each other.
He said much of the funds the class has raised will now go to making sure each senior has a yearbook.
“It’s been tough,” Schmidt said. “We’ve never dealt with anything like this. But as a whole, we’ve done well. We’ve worked well together and we’ve all worked hard.”
LOOKING FORWARD — AND BACK
For the Class of 2020, their high school careers will end the same way it began: with adversity, said Alsilimy.
Four years ago, weeks after their freshman year began, the Skagit County community as a whole suffered a tragedy when a gunman killed five people at Cascade Mall, including 16-year-old Mount Vernon High School sophomore Sarai Lara.
“We’ve already proven our resilience,” Alsilimy said. “We’ve lost people and we’ve come back to school. This is just one more obstacle that we’re going to have to overcome. Don’t let this pandemic hinder your success because we’ve already proven that we can overcome adversity.”
Even their lives to this point have been book-ended by strife — most were born in the months following the 9/11 terror attacks.
Overcoming those tragedies gives the Class of 2020 an added responsibility, Alsilimy said.
“It’s a responsibility to awareness,” she said. “We have the responsibility to educate ourselves, (and learn) how to be kind, how to be compassionate, how to feel for each other.”
A silver lining for many of the seniors has been to see how they are still supported by their communities. Although they can’t fill gymnasiums and stadiums to celebrate, many community members are finding ways to help.
For example, Page said, the La Conner community chipped in to purchase every senior a yearbook — a cost of more than $1,200, La Conner School District Superintendent Whitney Meissner said.
“Their community has (our) backs too,” Page said.
Many of the county’s student leaders worry about their first year beyond high school and what higher education may look like. Already, some colleges and universities have decided to at least start next school year online only.
“I’m kind of concerned that I’m not going to be able to go to face-to-face college,” Axelson Ney said. “I just really hope that I’ll actually be able to get my college experience. Going to college is stressful and I feel like I’d like to do it properly, I’d like to get my full college experience.”
A positive of the pandemic, Wakefield said, is it has given her time to slow down and enjoy spending time with family before leaving to attend the University of Nevada, Reno.
Even before the pandemic, she planned to study nursing, she said. Now, that desire has grown even stronger.
“I realized how much nurses are needed and how important they are,” Wakefield said. “That makes my drive more. It just shows how you have to be brave to choose going into the medical field.”
Alsilimy’s plans have also been shaped by the pandemic. While she had originally thought about studying international relations in addition to Arabic and Spanish, she now intends to study Public Health, Arabic and Spanish at the University of Washington.
“Maybe my peers and I will bond together over how annoying it is to have class online,” she said.
Although he won’t be able to stand in front of his peers and deliver his valedictorian speech in the usual way, Schmidt still wants his classmates to know he’s proud of them.
While COVID-19 has kept them physically apart, they’ve grown closer, he said.
“If anything this pandemic has brought us closer,” Schmidt said. “We’ve had to work with each other trying to make sure each other is in the loop. We’ve all just worked together to help get each other through this time.”
While times are tough, the student leaders encouraged their classmates to stay positive.
“It’s really easy to dwell on all of the things we’re losing but we should be grateful for the things we do have like our health and our family, and the opportunity for a lot of self-reflection,” Axelson Ney said. “Use this as an opportunity, rather than a time to be really upset.”
Although it’s not the ending they had hoped for, many are optimistic they will have a chance to celebrate with each other in the future, when it is safe to do so.
“We need to stay positive,” Wakefield said. “There will come a time that we will all meet again. That last day of school was not the last time. We’re all going to do amazing things.”