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Las Vegas high school seniors adapt during coronavirus pandemic

Members of the class of 2020 thought they would spend spring like the seniors before them.

They expected to be dancing at prom, pulling an all-nighter at Disneyland, playing their last season of sports and — most important — walking across the stage at graduation to accept diplomas in front of family and friends.

But the COVID-19 pandemic thwarted those plans, and students have had to adjust to the possibility of missing the milestones that experts say are essential for closure during the transitional period of a student’s life.

“They can take away prom and Disneyland, that’s whatever,” said Maeve Walsh, a senior at Bishop Gorman High School. “But I’ve worked so hard for the past four years to walk across that stage.”

Chris Kearney, an education expert at UNLV, said it’s completely understandable for graduating seniors to be bummed.

“They have every right to feel sad and disappointed about what’s going on,” he said. “That’s a natural reaction to losing a lot of key benchmarks and closure-based events, so I think they need to give themselves permission to feel that way.”

Kearney encouraged seniors to make an effort to stay connected with their peers and try to get together to say their goodbyes while maintaining social distancing.

But seniors at Bishop Gorman, a private Catholic school, wouldn’t give up on the traditional rite of passage. They started a petition to demand an in-person graduation ceremony instead of a virtual one. As of Friday, the petition had more than 3,500 signatures, including Walsh’s.

Organizer Jake Gaughan, a football player at Bishop Gorman who will pursue a degree in entrepreneurship at Arizona State University, wrote in the petition that the class understood it might take months to organize an in-person ceremony but added that it would be worth the wait.

“We just want the opportunity to receive our diplomas in the same way that our alumni parents did,” he wrote.

Gaughan said the school sent out a survey to all seniors on April 23, after the petition was created, asking them whether they planned to participate in the online ceremonies and what idea or proposal they had for “a fun and exciting way” that the school could honor the seniors until they figured out a formal graduation plan. It also asked when — June, July, early August or homecoming weekend in the fall — they would be able to attend commencement if it were rescheduled.

Bishop Gorman Principal Kevin Kiefer sent out a letter to seniors on Friday, saying that because the survey responses showed “a clear preference for delaying events now with the hopes that we can gather as a school community with our families for more traditional graduation events later in the summer,” the school will host a baccalaureate Mass on July 13, a senior barbecue and yearbook-signing party on July 14, and “commencement exercises” at the South Point on July 15.

“We remind everyone that these plans are subject to meeting all requirements as outlined by our state and local government and health officials, as well as requirements of the Diocese of Las Vegas and the South Point,” Kiefer said in the letter. “With continued uncertainty about health and social distancing requirements, the number of guests may be limited at these events.”

Seniors at the University of Nevada, Reno created a similar petition that gathered 16,420 signatures. The university announced it will allow 2020 spring graduates to come back and walk in the fall 2020 or spring 2021 commencement ceremonies.

Nevada State High School, a public charter school, will host a drive-thru graduation ceremony that will allow students to drive up and get their diploma and a photo, celebrating with their classmates from a distance. Senior Brittney Tran said she’s grateful for the opportunity to have an in-person ceremony, even though it will look a bit different.

“It definitely beats just walking to the mailbox to get our diplomas,” Tran said. “We’ll at least get to drive by and cheer for our friends as their name and college is read.”

The Clark County School District had not issued an official plan for graduation ceremonies as of Friday. Superintendent Jesus Jara addressed the issue in a video message to students in early April, saying the district and site principals were working to find a way to honor seniors.

“I don’t know when, I don’t know how, I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but what I can tell you is that we are going to find a way to recognize (you) for your phenomenal accomplishments,” Jara said in the video.

Transitioning to online learning

Upperclassmen at Nevada State High have even more on their plates than most high school students. The school offers a dual-enrollment program, so juniors’ and seniors’ schedules consist of both high school and college classes.

Tran said she will graduate with an associate degree along with a high school diploma before heading to the University of Colorado, Denver, to complete a biology degree.

She said the school already had all its high school classes and lectures online, so the biggest hurdle was communication. She said the school isn’t lessening its criteria for graduating, but “senioritis” has been worsened by students’ inability to attend school in person.

“Getting kids to respond during quarantine is really hard,” Tran said. “It affects our motivation to do anything.”

The college classes are taken through the College of Southern Nevada, and Tran said the transition to online classes hasn’t been too bad, with the exception of labs.

“We have to watch videos of people dissecting things instead of dissecting them ourselves,” she said. “We’re really missing that hands-on element.”

Plans in limbo

Tran said she was supposed to have her orientation at the University of Colorado, Denver on April 10, but the event was moved online instead. She hasn’t visited the school yet and is nervous to schedule in-person classes because she’s not sure the campus will even be open in the fall.

Eric Johnston is an English teacher at Green Valley High School, and his son is a senior there. He said the school district isn’t allowing students to get the caps, gowns and yearbooks that they’ve already purchased.

“It’s just frustrating,” Johnston said. “It doesn’t seem that complicated. I don’t see why they can’t come up with a way to distribute them like they have with Chromebooks and food.”

He said it’s been hard watching his son and the students he’s taught for years miss out on the milestones that come at the end of senior year, and he hopes the district will find a way to help them.

“They’ve already lost out on so much,” Johnston said. “I just think it would be nice to figure out something to at least get them their caps and gowns.”

Isabella Tollefson, one of the valedictorians at Las Vegas Academy of the Arts, agreed that the uncertainty has made it hard to plan for the fall, when she is to attend The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

“It’s kind of coming down to the wire, but then you feel hesitant to make these long-term decisions not even knowing what the immediate future holds,” she said. “So, like, while I like to think that schools will open back up in the fall and that there won’t be what they call, like, a second wave, I’m hesitant to pay $60,000 for online school, because when I go to college I imagine myself being there and experiencing the world.”

‘We didn’t get to bond’

Tollefson said the end of her senior year has been hard, losing out on life experiences she’d been anticipating for years.

“It’s been pretty disheartening because I was really looking forward to doing all the things that the seniors get to do,” she said. “You kind of grow up imagining these things and seeing them in movies and TV shows, so not being able to experience them myself has been kind of a blow to my mental health and stuff.”

Liberty High School senior Rylie Thacker qualified for regionals in track and field — just in time for the spring season to be canceled. She knew the rest of the year was in jeopardy when she saw people putting away all the track equipment before practice at the beginning of March.

“Once they started canceling after-school activities, I had a feeling something big was coming,” she said. “Then that weekend they told us not to come back to school.”

The class of 2020 has a right to be upset, Thacker said, but it’s hard to feel bad for herself when there are so many people in worse situations because of the coronavirus.

Thacker’s mom, Summer, said she thinks students are handling the situation better than the parents.

“The kids are resilient, and it’s good. That’s going to help them in their next steps in life,” she said. “But as parents, we look at it as, ‘Oh, my gosh, that was such a big step in our lives,’ and they’re the ones cheering us up.”

Kearney, the UNLV education expert, said it’s important for parents to keep an eye out for mood changes in their children and to be sure to monitor what may have changed with their next steps.

“If a student’s been accepted into a college, for example, have there been any changes with respect to course registration, orientation, financial aid, those kinds of things?” Kearney said. “Trying to get as much information about that to reduce some of the worry and ambiguity would be helpful.”

Walsh said the end-of-year social traditions — a senior barbecue, even a senior prank — will be missed.

“We didn’t get to bond before graduation like the classes before us, and it hits hard because we’re all going to different colleges,” Walsh said. “I talk to my friends every day about how different that last day would have been if we’d known.”

Fellow Bishop Gorman senior Sloan Pyatt said losing the end of her final year “stinks.”

“Many of us have been classmates since elementary school, and I’m probably never really going to talk to them or hang out with them the way we used to,” Pyatt said. “But it was kind of cool, because my last class on campus was held in the quad because the sewer line exploded, so that was a fun memory.”

Contact Alexis Egeland at aegeland@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0335. Follow @alexis_egeland on Twitter.

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