COVID-19: Outbreak disrupts life, milestone events for high school students
By ERIN ROLL and NICK ADUBATO
For Montclair Local
The closing of Montclair’s schools amid the COVID-19 outbreak has meant that seniors and juniors, instead of spending time with their classmates planning for prom and project graduation, visiting colleges, taking SATs, and holding study groups, are learning alone at home.
Social time with friends is spent behind a computer. Group projects, recitals, and art showcases are canceled. Graduation and prom probably will be as well.
“We left school on Thursday, like no one knew that would be our last day,” said junior Rafid Quayum.
New Jersey’s schools will remain closed at least through May 15, at which point the state hopes to make a decision about whether they will reopen.
In April, Gov. Phil Murphy said he was doubtful that schools would be able to hold graduation ceremonies in late May and early June.
Montclair had not yet, as of April 10, made any determination on what will be done regarding graduation ceremonies or other end-of-year events, interim Superintendent Nathan Parker said.
Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet said it was up to each district to determine what to do about graduation, including coming up with some variety of virtual celebration, or holding an in-person celebration later in the year, after the outbreak is over.
Murphy said it was highly doubtful that schools would be able to go ahead with graduation ceremonies: “I just personally don’t see it.”
As for families who had planned to hold graduation parties for their high school seniors, Murphy said: “I’m not trying to be flippant, but I wouldn’t put down the non-refundable checks on those celebrations.”
RITES OF PASSAGE
Emotionally, it has been a difficult time, said senior Yael Gelman. “I think there’s a lot of ups and downs. Sometimes I get really angry that it’s my senior year, of all times,” she said.
For many students, it has been a difficult transition.
Most students have a group of close friends that they have strong bonds with, Quayum said, and then they have “school friends”: friends that they generally only interact with at school. With the prolonged absence from school, he said, you realize how much you miss your school friends as well as your close friends. “It sucks just not being able to see those people,” he said.
For many seniors, the prospect of not being able to participate in Montclair’s long-standing traditions, including crossing the bridge in the amphitheater at graduation and riding in the Project Graduation bus parade around Montclair, is the source of a lot of sadness and frustration.
Students may not have the opportunity to attend the senior prom, if they did not already attend as juniors. But graduation and its related celebrations will probably be missed the most, senior Lucas Podvey said. “I think that’s at the top of their list of things - if it doesn’t happen, that’s what they’re going to miss the most.”
Academic-related concerns, such as being prepared for the AP tests, which are still going ahead, when they will be able to take the SATs, and what the lockdown might mean for GPAs in the long term, are also major for students.
“It was just a snap of the fingers that this happened,” said senior Nguenar Ndiaye, who will be attending Rutgers in the fall.
Ndiaye said her online studies have been going “surprisingly well.” However, she said, she did miss being inside the actual school: “It really doesn’t feel authentic, being behind a screen after being in a school for so many years.”
Ndiaye is a member of the Peer Leadership Council at the high school. She and the other members have been keeping in regular contact with each other via Google Meets.
Elisa Xu, a junior, said it was a challenge, particularly at the beginning, to adjust to the increased amount of homework and schoolwork being assigned through the virtual classes. But she noted that the change in routine was difficult for teachers as well. “It’s hard on them, so I have some sympathy for them,” she said.
Gelman said she has a core group of friends, and the group checks in via group chat. The group sends each other silly memes, or lifts each other up when someone is feeling bad. And the group has been sharing a lot of frustration over how the year has transpired.
Because classes are not meeting in person, some of Gelman’s end-of-term projects, including a visual art project done with a partner, have been shifted over to written material.
“It’s not about the graduation itself, it’s about all the things which surround it. Pictures with your family on the lawn, riding in the bus with your classmates for the last time on Project Graduation, and missing the senior moments. You only have one senior graduation, one final show as a student,” says senior Ellie Carhart, who is the co-head of the tech department for the School of Visual and Performing Arts. The SVPA’s spring show, which would have been Carhart’s final show as an MHS student, was canceled.
THEIR NEXT STEPS
Pippa Scroggins, who plans to attend the College of William and Mary, said she is sad not only about missing the graduation ceremony, but also perhaps of her first semester of college being disrupted. “If on top of no graduation we don’t even have a fall semester of college to look forward to, it feels as though we have nothing to show for the effort we have put into our schoolwork for years,” Scroggins said.
“I think a lot of us, it’s the stress and anxiety of not knowing what’s next,” said Podvey, who like Scroggins was concerned that the first semester of college would be disrupted. Podvey plans to attend Lycoming College in the fall.
It’s a disappointment for the juniors as well, since junior year is a time when students are seriously thinking about applying for colleges and preparing for SATs, taking AP exams and other key benchmarks. Even if colleges and universities don’t look at SAT scores for this year, because of the disruptions, Xu said that many students were concerned about whether they would be able to keep their GPAs up while following an online learning routine.
The College Board is offering AP exams, which usually would have been taken in May, as online tests. The SATs and PSATs, which were to have been offered in March, May and June, have all been canceled, and the College Board intends to offer makeup dates in August and the fall if it is feasible from a public health standpoint.
New Jersey has canceled all state-offered assessments, including the portfolio assessment for students.
At this time of year, said Pat Berry, a college coach who contributes the College Bound column to Montclair Local, seniors generally will have decided on what college or university they will be going to.
Upcoming students, however, may find themselves in the position of deciding where they want to go based on a virtual tour. “It’s a whole new ballgame when you can’t go back and visit a school,” Berry said. “Being on campus is a really good way to see what it feels like.”
WAYS TO COPE
Berry said it was important for students to find ways to keep themselves busy and occupied, whether it involved doing an independent study project, working on new hobbies, or doing community service. But it was important to remember not to overdo it: “There’s so much stress on anybody, I wouldn’t advocate for creating more stress for yourself.”
Xu said she spends time on some of her hobbies and interests, including art and photography. She also makes it a point to get outside and get some exercise as much as possible during the day.
It helps that her family has discussions about COVID-19, the science related to the outbreak, and the government’s response, over the dinner table, she said, adding that it is reassuring to know that they can and do discuss the outbreak.
Gelman has been doing a lot of reading and community service, including volunteering with Bnai Keshet and helping Montclair Design Week with its face shield project.
Podvey said although they are missing out on a lot their senior year, he understood the need to keep social distancing to keep more people from becoming ill. The worst outcome would be to have a second wave of the virus occur, he said.
Nick Adubato is a senior at Montclair High School.