Pandemic Grads

With nowhere to go but forward, these high school and college seniors forego the celebration rituals—with mixed feelings.

College graduate Rachel DiMauro (Rider University)
by Ahmad Graves-El
College graduate Josh Loew (Delaware Valley University)

The end of the school year is usually a euphoric and celebratory time for students. However, for the Class of 2020, the school year came to an abrupt halt earlier this month.

On May 4, Governor Phil Murphy, made the announcement that many students across the state of New Jersey were hoping against all hope wouldn’t be made. At a Covid-19 update press briefing, Murphy announced, “that all New Jersey school buildings will remain closed for in-person instruction for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year” in attempts to stem the tide of the coronavirus.

Although many students are in total agreement with the decision to keep school buildings closed for the rest of the academic year, it was still a jagged little pill to swallow for several, local high school seniors.

“… I wanted to cry,” said Alexandra Kukal, an 18-year-old senior at Millville Senior High School. “I had been holding onto the hope that I would be able to go back to school to spend time with my friends and be able to make the memories from senior year traditions…”

“Honestly, by that point, I was expecting the announcement sooner or later with how things were going,” said Jeremy Rasmussen, 18-year-old Vineland High School senior by way of the AMSA program at Johnstone School. “But it didn’t make it hurt any less.”

Not being able to partake in time-honored rituals like attending senior prom, going on the senior trip, or even skipping school to go to Great Adventure on senior cut day is painful for these students, to say the least.

“The traditions of senior year are a big thing, not being able to participate in them is difficult,” Kukal revealed.

High school grad Jeremy Rasmussen (Vineland High AMSA)

“This is what teachers tell you about all through your schooling experience, about the day you’ll finally get to celebrate your accomplishments and head off to college,” said Rasmussen. “It does hurt a good amount, as it feels like my life has been building to this moment.”

“Having the recognition dinners, scholarship ceremonies, prom, and graduation cancelled is disappointing,” Kukal added.

The idea of putting in that work and not being able to fully enjoy the celebratory fruits of their labors, is a theme that extends to college seniors, as well.

“I’ve certainly worked really hard, and I certainly am disappointed to miss out on the end of my senior year,” said Josh Loew, graduating student at Delaware Valley University.

Rachel DiMauro, a Rider University senior, laments the fact that the school closings kept her from making her final rounds in her collegiate environs.

“If I had known that my last semester of school ever was going to end so abruptly, I definitely would have taken it all in a little more and gone around to all my favorite spots on campus one last time,” she said.

The reality of not being able to graduate in person with family, friends and supporters during this normally festive time, has weighed heavily on some students.

“There are a lot of people that I wasn’t able to say goodbye to properly such as professors and friends that live out of state or out of the country,” said DiMauro.

“My friends are scattering to all corners of the country after graduation, and it’s going to be incredibly difficult to see them again,” said Rasmussen. “I wanted to spend every moment possible with them in the little time we had left together, and it felt like that was ripped away from us.”

High school graduate Alexandra Kukal (Millville High)

Interestingly, the school closings caused by the pandemic may usher in a new age in how students receive their education.

All of the students across the state have had to do their schooling at home, via the internet. Colleges, throughout the last several years, have intermittently sprinkled in online classes for their students as a choice. In the not too distant future, however, all classes may have to be taught online from college all the way down to preschool.

The graduating seniors shared their thoughts on this possible development.

“I feel that things will return to the way they were before the pandemic, but online classes will become more available,” said Loew. “Homeschooling will be more popular for the years to follow, and technology will be better utilized.”

“I think that virtual classrooms are something that a lot of students and educators need to prepare for,” DiMauro said. “I think that cultivating programs specifically for online learning would be a step in the right direction in terms of teaching.”

Rasmussen, who ponders if we can advantageously use the pandemic to create better teaching settings in the future said, “I think we should be looking to have class sizes be smaller, as not only will it help stop the spread of viral outbreaks in the future, but give students access to more one-on-one time with teachers.”

Although the traditional graduation ceremony is not feasible at this stage of the game, schools have been attempting to come up with innovative ways to honor their seniors for all their hard work and perseverance in reaching such a magnanimous moment in their lives.

Rider held a virtual graduation ceremony on May 16 and is planning to have an in-person graduation in November of this year. Loew said Del Val is supposed to have an in-person ceremony in May 2021.

Kukal revealed a unique opportunity for Cumberland County residents to share their well wishes to area graduating seniors.

“… A few people … put together a Facebook group called Cumberland County Senior Class of 2020 Adopt a Senior,” Kukal said. “On the page, parents can post their seniors’ accomplishments and photos and other members of the group can choose a senior to adopt.”

Even though these seniors won’t be able to participate in the traditional pomp and circumstance of graduation, senior prom, or any of the other annual end-of-year school activities, it appears they all have bright futures ahead of them.

Loew will be doing a fellowship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a wildlife biologist this summer; Kukal will be shipping off to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in June; DiMauro is planning to become more fluent in French, which she says will lead to more job opportunities when the job market reopens; and Rasmussen is headed to Harvard University in the fall.

The sky’s the limit for each of these talented seniors and although they’re headed in different directions, as members of the Class of 2020 they will always have one thing in common: A pandemic cancelled their graduation. n

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