Members of Centre County's Class of 2020 lost some cherished rites of passage this spring, but found some positive lessons amid the disappointment
Senior class trips. Prom. Senior skip days. Banquets and awards. Graduation ceremonies. These are all rites of passage for most teenagers during the spring of 12th grade – traditions many look forward to for years. But when a global pandemic brought the in-person school year to an abrupt end in March, most of these milestone celebrations for the Class of 2020 either disappeared completely, or were forced to take on a radically different format.
School districts and families are coming up with alternative ways to celebrate local high school seniors, including yard signs, parking-lot parades, in-person visits from principals and teachers, and “adopt-a-senior” Facebook groups that offer the public a chance to drop off gifts and goody bags at the homes of soon-to-be graduates. School districts are planning alternative graduation ceremonies, including virtual, drive-in, and socially distant celebrations.
Town&Gown asked student leaders from several local high schools to reflect on what this unprecedented spring of senior year means to them and their peers.
Luke Wilson, Bald Eagle Area High School
Luke Wilson is the 2020 class president of Bald Eagle Area High School, representing about 130 graduating seniors. Aside from the cancellation of prom and the all-night after-party, he is missing out on presenting his final Future Business Leaders of American project and participating in his last school musical. He believes his class shares a common feeling of disappointment about the way their high school career is ending.
“Overall, it’s been very difficult on people. I think the hardest part has been the lack of closure. I’ve been going to school for 13 years in Bald Eagle Area and I’ve always looked forward to graduation and the senior activities that kind of celebrate us accomplishing that,” he says. “Being with the people you went through it all with is a big part of that celebration. So, I would say the hardest part about it is knowing that I already had my last day of high school, and I had no idea it was my last day of high school.”
Wilson says the school has already surprised the seniors with yard signs and a parking-lot parade at the school, at which teachers greeted the seniors with cheers and waves from outside of their cars.
“That meant a lot to a lot of people. Our school has been very supportive. Even if there’s not a lot they can do to remedy the situation, at least we know they care,” he says.
Wilson says he has not had a lot of schoolwork since classes went to an online format, but he has been busy studying for AP exams during his quarantine. He also has been working on picking up some new skills, learning computer programming and playing piano, he says. He is planning to continue his education at the College of Wooster in Ohio with a double major in mathematics and physics, and is hopeful that he’ll be able to attend in person starting this fall.
“The end of high school was kind of scrapped, so I’m hoping for the beginning of college to be a fresh start after all of this,” he says. “I don’t want to have to be sitting home for this big transition-point of my life.”
Wilson feels the way their school career ended will affect students from the Class of 2020 for the rest of their lives.
“I think we are kind of uniquely placed in this situation as a class, because the world is changing right now. It’s not really going to be the same as it was a few months ago, probably ever again. As we’re stepping into this new stage in our lives, we’re also kind of stepping into a new world in a sense, so it’s a big transition for us,” he says. “It is difficult to go through, but I think it will make us resilient, and I think it will give us an opportunity to find positives within it."
Natalie Book, Bellefonte Area High School
Bellefonte grads will receive their diplomas in a drive-thru ceremony on June 5.
In a written statement, 2020 class President Natalie Book says, “During our junior year, delays concerning Bellefonte’s rebuilding of Rogers Stadium robbed our school of the fellowship and opportunities surrounding hosting home football games. However, upon returning to a brand-new stadium our senior year, our enthusiasm and appreciation for not only the new field but the chance to be together was unmatched.
“Even though our senior celebrations and memories are not what we had anticipated or hoped for, we understand that our losses enabled others to keep from losing far more. Furthermore, we know from the experiences of our junior year, this season of disappointment will pass, and when it does we will come through COVID-19 with a new appreciation for the friends that accompany and the opportunities that await us. As a class, we will make a greater difference in the world because we have learned not only writing and arithmetic, but lasting life lessons of self-sacrifice and gratitude.”
Hannah Montminy, Penns Valley Area High School
Hannah Montminy set a Penns Valley school record last fall in girls’ soccer, with 201 career points. She also surpassed the 1,000-point mark in girls’ basketball this winter. She realizes that she was fortunate to have the opportunities to reach those milestones, as some of her classmates had their high school sports careers cut short due to the coronavirus mitigation efforts.
“A handful of my close friends are missing out on their spring sports, and I know that’s been very tough for them,” she says.
Montminy says she and her classmates are also missing out on a senior trip to Pittsburgh, a senior picnic, prom, and a traditional graduation ceremony.
As class president, Montminy was scheduled to give the welcome address at graduation. Instead, she is recording the speech for a video that will be distributed to the senior class. The class is tentatively expecting to take part in a drive-up graduation ceremony with their families, she says.
“We’ll get to be with our families, but it’s going to be weird not graduating with all of these people that we’ve gone through all of these years with,” she says. “This time was our last chance to be with the friends we’ve grown up with. To have that taken away from us out of nowhere, with no warning, has been very difficult.
“I think people in my class are feeling a range of emotions, but overall, people are sad and disappointed. And I think that is natural, but I also think our response has been really good. … Having to go through this all at the same time has almost brought us closer together.”
Montminy has spent her time in quarantine doing homework, exercising, and babysitting her 2-year-old nephew. She stays positive by looking toward the future.
She plans to attend Penn State in the fall, where she will major in biobehavioral health. Before then, she says, “My friends and I have a summer bucket list. Once restrictions are lifted, we have all these things we want to do to kind of make up for the lost time.”
Rachel Burger, Philipsburg-Osceola Senior High School
Rachel Burger misses hanging out with her friends and teachers at Philipsburg-Osceola Senior High. The 2020 class president says her classmates are feeling the same way, but that they’re all navigating the loss of something even bigger.
“It’s the journey that we’re missing – everything leading up to graduation. There are a lot of memories we are missing out on,” she says.
Like many seniors, Burger had a prom dress picked out that she did not get the chance to own or wear. Although students are encouraged to attend virtual classes at least once a week, she is really missing the dynamic of in-person instruction, especially in her favorite class, AP literature. She was also looking forward to the “graduation walk” – the tradition of seniors walking through the elementary and middle schools in their caps and gowns.
Burger is hoping that the eventual easing of restrictions may lead to a late summer prom. She says school administrators have delivered yard signs to the homes of each of the 130 members of the Class of 2020, and many students have been the recipients of “adopt-a-senior” gifts.
Slated to begin online classes in the Division of Undergraduate Studies at Penn State this summer, Burger has been spending her time during quarantine doing a lot of hands-on art projects like painting, embroidering, and macramé, while trying to do a lot less of scrolling through social media. She believes the pandemic will leave a lasting impression on her and her classmates, including some positive lessons.
“We have been so anxious to be done with school, but now this is happening, and we just wish we could be back in school,” she says. “I think this is really opening everyone’s eyes to the idea that we can’t take anything for granted. We need to enjoy what we have when we can.”
Nicole Flis, St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy
With only 40 people in the senior class, the St. Joseph’s community is a small, tight-knit group. Nicole Flis says that is what made the abrupt halt to in-person schooling feel so harsh.
“Because it is such a small school, I’ve gotten really close to my friends and I know my teachers very well. Not being able to see everyone every day is something to adjust to. I think it’s been the hardest part,” she says.
Flis says the school was well-equipped to make the switch to online coursework on short notice, as students already were set up to complete assignments via Google Classroom in the event of snow days. She says she has spent much of her time during quarantine doing schoolwork, as well as trying to keep active by cooking, baking, walking, reading, and watching new shows and movies on TV with her family.
Flis has been very active in school activities and leadership roles. She has been a member of the Student Council and a student ambassador for four years. She is the co-captain of Mock Trial, president of the National Honor Society, and co-president of the Spanish National Honor Society. In March, she placed first during a regional competition of the Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science, but the state competition she qualified for was canceled, like most other end-of-year events.
On May 16, SJCA hosted a watch party via Zoom for a video acknowledging the graduating class. It included pictures of seniors in their caps and gowns, and some student speakers. The school is planning an in-person graduation in the summer, if the situation permits, Flis says.
"It’s definitely been a little bit disheartening, because we’ve all worked so hard for the past four years, and graduation and the end-of-year events are things we all look forward to to celebrate our class and our accomplishments,” she says.
“This is definitely unlike anything anyone has ever gone through before, and it’s going to shape the rest of our lives. When all this is over, we’ll definitely have a different perspective on things than we used to,” Flis says. “I think it’s put a lot of things into perspective for me. Basically, now that I’ve been spending a lot of my time with my family and keeping in touch with my friends, I’m realizing how grateful I am to have the people I have in my life.”
Flis plans to attend UCLA this fall to study political science with a pre-law track.
Joy Zhu, State College Area High School
Joy Zhu had big plans for the end of her senior year: A DECA competition in Nashville. Prom. The senior walk through the local elementary schools. Accepted students day at Claremont McKenna College in California, where she plans to double-major in international relations and economics. A backpacking trip through Europe this summer.
It appears that all of these things will be canceled, of course. But the loss that stings the most? The graduation ceremony.
“I think what I was most looking forward to was walking across the stage at Bryce Jordan Center. I think a lot of us were,” Zhu says.
As president of the student body at State College Area High School, Zhu and other members of student government and the student senate were afforded the opportunity to present their suggestions for alternative celebrations to administrators. However, Zhu says, with almost 600 students in their graduating class, the options were limited. Seniors were honored with a drive-thru graduation parade on May 27.
Zhu appreciates the efforts teachers have made to help students in the district during this time, including relaxing their grading policy in deference to students who may now be working a lot of hours, or whose families may be struggling for other reasons.
“I think SCASD did a great job as a whole of trying to make the whole situation more equitable,” she says. “They started a food-distribution program for people who need meals. For those who didn’t have a computer or solid WiFi connection, they immediately got those to people who needed them so they could do school work.”
If there is anything Zhu appreciates about the quarantine, it’s the down time, she says.
“We are always really busy and our schedules are packed, so this time has allowed people to really slow down and do things they like to do, like play music or do art or exercise – even sleep.”
Zhu feels the hardest part about the crisis is the feeling of helplessness and fear of not knowing what is going to happen next, and when. Zhu also cites her sadness at the lack of closure caused by the sudden halt to the school year.
“If I would have known that my last day of high school was the day before spring break, I would have definitely hugged all my teachers and my friends,” she says.
Also, she adds, “I think one thing people have been struggling with is the feeling that we aren’t really allowed to mourn these things that we are missing, because you know some people have it worse. But everyone’s feelings are valid. We need to accept that we’re allowed to mourn the things that may not seem as important as what other people are mourning.”
Karen Walker is a freelance writer in State College.