Students’ senior years turned upside down by coronavirus closures

When Ohio high school seniors heard March 12 that their schools would close for three weeks to help stem the coronavirus outbreak, it’s no surprise many cheered at first.

But now, with the rest of the school year in doubt, those seniors see two different worries. First, students who still need a few last steps to earn a diploma just lost their daily face-to-face support on that path. Others are realizing the traditional end-of-high school experiences — prom, final sports seasons, spring plays/concerts and even the graduation ceremony — could be canceled.

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Whether they have big events in mind, or just the daily school routine and interactions, the change is weighing on local high school seniors.

“I’m starting to realize just how vital school was for me as a person,” said Fairmont High School student body president Fabrice Uwihirwe. “I really like being involved, being around people, doing after-school clubs and class council meetings. To have all of that knocked down to just texting friends is really not the same. It’s almost like losing a part of myself.”

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine ordered school buildings closed until at least Monday, April 6, but given the increasing severity of society’s shutdown and social distancing, many are expecting schools to move to online/at-home education for the rest of the semester.

Chaz Amos, student ambassador at Dayton’s Thurgood Marshall High School, said some of his senior classmates are worried first about qualifying to graduate, and second about having a chance to celebrate with the traditional ceremony.

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Students who were using one of the alternate pathways to graduation may need to finish community service or work hours that are suddenly hard to come by given a statewide stay-at-home order. And Amos said some DPS students are relying on a capstone project as a graduation requirement, but that requires close cooperation with a teacher or teachers.

Amos said he hopes seniors step up to the challenge.

“This is a test of resilience. This is a test to say, can we go out into the adult world and work through a problem like this? Amos said. “There’s not always teachers watching over us and reminding us what to do. It’s up to us. … So what are we going to do? Are we going to complain, or are we going to persevere?”

On Wednesday, the Ohio legislature passed a bill that gives each high school the authority to grant seniors a diploma if the school determines the students had been “on track” to graduate this spring when school closures began March 17, even if those students are unable to complete some of the requirements this spring.

Fairmont High School found out schools would be closed about 20 minutes before dismissal on the students’ last day before spring break. They scrambled to make sure students took home Chromebooks and chargers, and are now setting up both academic and other programs online.

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Corey Miller, Fairmont’s activities coordinator, said she’ll hold meetings with Uwihirwe and the rest of the student leadership group via Google Hangout. She’s studying other ways to keep the school community connected.

“Fabrice is one of those faces that kids just like to see,” Miller said. “He’s going to record at least one ‘Firebird Chat’ a week, and I’m going to send it out to the entire student population and the teachers – kind of like a message from our own president.”

Miller said the student government elections will go on soon, with candidate videos posted online. And students may still vote on a prom court with king and queen even if the event is canceled, to allow some piece of the event survive.

Both Amos and Uwihirwe said some planned events have already been canceled — a senior recognition dinner/dance at Thurgood and one of Fairmont’s annual community service events. Fairmont’s spring musical and both schools’ proms hang in the balance.

“Those are events to build memories as we close out senior year,” Amos said. “It’s a major hit.”

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Both said they especially felt for their friends who had senior year sports finales taken away — Fairmont wrestlers just before the state meet and Thurgood’s boys basketball team in the regional tournament.

Sandy Addis, director of the National Dropout Prevention Center, told Education Week recently that academics and other experiences are both crucial to schools, adding that for now, “The experience side of school is almost totally on hold.”

Amos said he has some worries about classmates dropping out, given all the uncertainty around online lessons, school events, graduation rules and more. He said teachers are doing a good job so far of communicating via group chats, Instagram, Zoom conferencing and more.

Students are resilient, Miller said, and it’s OK for them to be upset given all the upheaval around a crucial time in their lives. She said Fairmont staff are working right now to make sure academic, counseling and mental health supports are all in place.

“Just like when you’re in the classroom, you don’t want to see any kid slip through the cracks,” she said. “This is just a new version of that challenge in connecting to all kids.”

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Uwihirwe said while he’s gearing up for online classes, he also has to make a mostly online decision in which university he’ll attend in the fall, as his spring break college visits were canceled, and the schools’ “admitted student days” have turned into online chats with counselors and others.

It’s another way the shutdown has turned schools from “a people business” as they’re often described, into an online exchange.

“Without school, there’s so many people you don’t see,” Uwihirwe said. “To have that taken away is just this giant gap in my everyday life. It’s hard to explain, but everything feels off without school.”

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