On the last day of school at Littleton High, teachers form a walkway in the gym as graduating seniors pass through, stopping to hug and say goodbye and sometimes cry.
Bella Hathorne had been looking forward to this tradition since she entered Littleton High four years ago as an anxious freshman, greeted by the same kind of walkway lined with the faces of teachers she did not yet know.
It will be the saddest part of missing the last two months of her senior year, if Colorado students do not return to school this semester because of the new coronavirus and the governor’s stay-at-home order. The likelihood of that happening seems to increase each day, leaving high school seniors to contend with a growing tally of missed rites of passage — prom, graduation, what would have been their final matches in baseball, soccer or lacrosse, SATs and college visits.
Gov. Jared Polis on Wednesday extended an order that will now keep all Colorado schools closed to in-person learning until April 30, instead of the previous April 17. And districts are preparing for the possibility that students won’t return until the fall.
Cañon City School District leaders recognize the toll losing the last months of high school will have on seniors in particular, depriving them of key moments that signal movement from one stage of life to another. But that loss doesn’t translate to academics, particularly as Cañon City High School has focused on giving students an education that is career centered and experiential, said Principal Bill Summers.
The school can still accelerate its seniors forward, he said, “and get them to the next level, whatever that may be.”
Bella danced on the poms team and immersed herself in music and theater, starring as Jo in Littleton’s production of “Little Women” and Hope in “Urinetown.” She spent much of her senior year preparing monologues and practicing Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten” and “When Did I Fall in Love,” from the musical “Fiorello,” and then performing them at unified auditions in New York and Los Angeles to try to get into college musical theater programs across the country.
She had done all the work, and had gotten into several schools. Now was when Bella was supposed to judge them. She had planned to visit a few campuses across the country this spring before choosing the best fit for next fall.
“It’s frustrating that I don’t get to travel to see them,” the 17-year-old said. “My plan was to visit all of them and see which one I liked.”
On the day of what would have been Bella’s last high school choir concert, the sad news came over the announcements just before school got out: the concert was canceled due to the new coronavirus. She wasn’t that upset, figuring it would be rescheduled and that this break from school would last only a couple weeks.
Now she’s doing her studies online, with no word on graduation or the rest of the school year.
Weirdly though, Bella says, this isn’t the worst thing that’s happened to the class of 2020.
“We all were born after 9/11. We’ve sort of been along for the ride the whole time,” she said. “We’ve all grown up in an era of fear and knowing that school is not the safest place for us. It’s not like the most traumatizing thing that’s ever happened to us.”
Shootings at nearby schools have been more unsettling than this, she said, as was the time last year when an 18-year-old Florida woman obsessed with the Columbine High School shooting flew to Colorado and bought a gun, causing schools to close.
“We are just used to things throwing normal life off course,” Bella said.
Blake Campbell, a senior at Grandview High School in Aurora, also has felt the shadow of tragedy throughout his 17 years, with his childhood bookended by 9/11 and the coronavirus.
“It honestly seems like we were built for this,” Blake said.
But the pandemic has taught the student a lesson he might not have learned as deeply in a classroom: the responsibility his generation has to go out into the world and change it for the better. The world is a cruel place full of wrongdoing, Blake said, and he feels called to put his own positive touch on it alongside his peers.
“It’s about how we go out and change all that,” he said.
Blake, who plans to attend the University of Northern Arizona to study biology, doesn’t necessarily feel that he’s lost his senior year even though he is still participating in classes online. He still stays in touch with friends, through texting and social media, and played a video game with one friend this week.
But the senior does feel a void when it comes to his baseball season, which could be canceled, cutting short his last chance to play for a team. As he transitions to college, he plans to focus on academics over sports.
Blake has played baseball since he was 6 years old and was looking forward to a promising season with a team he considers family.
“Everybody on the team was all onboard,” he said. “We were all on the same page and we always had each other’s back.”
Finding other ways to make memories
Both Blake and Grant Burkett, a senior at ThunderRidge High School in Highlands Ranch, are trying to come to terms with the reality that their graduations may not happen — at least not this spring. Districts across the state, many of which started online classes this week or last week, are still up in the air about whether they will hold graduation ceremonies later, perhaps in the summer.
Both students have long held up that day as a milestone after years of studying.
“You go through 12 years of school just for that day to be up on that stage to get your diploma,” Blake said.
Grant said he and his friends have talked about graduation throughout their four years of high school, and it’s odd for him to grasp that it may not happen. He also is struggling to fully accept that he might never attend another class in his high school — the day before spring break may have been his last as a typical high school student.
“I never thought that that might be my last day in my high school,” he said.
He’s not quite sad. It feels more like a surreal chapter of his life, Grant said, as his high school career was put on hold, and as he faces the prospect of never interacting with some of his school friends or teachers again.
The senior, who has committed to Colorado State University where he aims to study business or history, feels he’s losing “one of the more exciting parts” of his senior year. Included in that last stretch of high school is a barbecue that ThunderRidge High puts on for its seniors so that they can hang out and enjoy each other’s company. He anticipates that it’s been canceled, adding to the disappointment at a time he and his peers would otherwise be celebrating.
Seniors in Cañon City School District are contending with the same set of letdowns. Cañon City High School has canceled its annual musical — this year students would have performed “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” — but is considering trying to still give seniors a finale under the spotlight during school summer camps traditionally geared toward younger students, Summers said.
The district is also grappling with the prospect of postponing graduation until the summer along with its longstanding tradition known as “Fun Fest,” a carnival that much of the community helps pull off the day before students cross the graduation stage.
District leaders are getting creative about ways to make it up to seniors who feel robbed of their final months of high school. Thanks to the high school’s student council, families of Cañon City seniors will receive yard signs they can display outside their homes to show they have a student who is part of the class of 2020.
It’s an example of “something we can do to make them feel special,” Summers said.
The pain hits Summers and his family on a more personal level as his daughter, Kodee, is part of the graduating class.
Among the major moments she’ll miss out on this year is prom, which was going to have a 1920s theme. The 18-year-old already had her dress — one suited for a flapper — along with gloves, jewelry and a hairpiece. She tried it all on at home on Tuesday.
“Everything was still in its package, and I just kind of wanted to get an image of what it would have looked like,” Kodee said.
She may still have a night to shine, however, as she and her friends plot their own prom over FaceTime.
In the meantime, Kodee is choosing to focus on all the potential life after high school holds. She’s ready for her next step, which will unfold at Fort Lewis College in Durango.
“I can’t wait to go out into the real world and experience that.”