The month of May is prom season in Maine. There are months of planning for the final celebration with friends before entering the next stage of life. But COVID-19 has changed all that. Classes are now online, and prom and graduation ceremonies have been cancelled, delayed or otherwise re-imagined. Maine’s high school seniors had to learn to deal with all of these changes.
When Farmington's Mt. Blue High School first closed its doors and moved to "remote learning" back in March, senior Olivia Schank says she was sure it would just be temporary.
"I was definitely in denial," she says. "I did not think about it, did not talk about it with my mom when she brought it up. It was mostly, just, 'This is happening, we'll get through it two weeks at a time.’"
But then came the decision to end in-person classes for the rest of the school year. And she, as class president, had to help plan the graduation.
"So it kind of set in and became an actual real-life problem," she says.
Schank says she understands why her school had to end in-person classes, but she says that she and other seniors are grieving the loss of their final semester of high school — trips, dances, scholarship nights and graduation.
"I've gone through the steps of grief, if you want to put it that way," she says. "There is stress. There is anger about it. But what it comes down to is keeping people safe. And still having the end of our senior year, just in different ways."
“We're all holding up. But it's so hard.”
Portland High School Senior Casarra Abeasi says between losing out on graduation, adapting to remote schoolwork and attempting to plan for life after high school, the pandemic has taken an academic and emotional toll. And she feels unprepared for college level classes and AP exams, which she'll take later this month.
"A lot of people are just questioning, should I even take it? Am I prepared? How will I do?" she says. "That's definitely how I'm feeling towards it, as well."
And as students in the class of 2020 focus on finishing their senior year in the new environment, their school administrations are wrestling with how to recognize their achievements.
"I feel like all students expect, on June 14, that they're to be together, to celebrate and acknowledge," says Monique Poulin, the principal of Mt. Blue High School in Farmington. "So for me, if we can find some way to do that and honor the students' overarching requests, then that's really what we should be focused on."
Poulin says the district has considered a range of options, from virtual graduations to a parade of cars that would drive through town. Other schools have announced plans for ceremonies at drive-in theatres. Poulin says Mt. Blue is waiting for more guidance from the state before making a decision. But, she says students have told her that they want some of the classic traditions: caps and gowns, speeches, and diplomas.
"Is there a way for us to have a socially distant graduation, where at least the students are present together, in a socially distant way? Potentially having speeches and music in a socially distant way? And getting their diplomas, in some fashion," Poulin says. "To be together and to have closure on their 13 years of being together. And if there's any way that we can honor that, we are going to do our best. But we need to operate within the structures of what our state guidelines are, and what our district administration will support, as well.”
And those state guidelines — particularly around gatherings — have posed a challenge for many schools. Maine Education Commissioner Pender Makin says her department recently convened a team of 20 school nurses to offer guidance for schools planning graduations.
The state is asking schools to follow guidelines restricting gatherings to less than 50 people. And for schools considering in-person graduations, the state is asking them to require masks, limit guests, social distance and create plans to safely hand out diplomas to each student. For the "drive-in" option, the state is recommending that just one student leave their car at a time.
Makin says she's also heard from schools that are planning creative solutions, ranging from ceremonies held across several athletic fields to tiny, in-person graduations with just a handful of seniors and family members sitting at least six feet apart.
"But we really decided we would trim [the guidance] down to not making a lot of recommendations on how people might plan these [graduations], but rather what must be considered and in place for safety purposes," Makin says.
Mt. Blue senior Olivia Schank says while alternative ceremonies and public measures of recognition have been great to see: "what we really wanted to — and what I pushed for — was making sure that our class was all together one last time. It's not about the diploma that we're getting. It's about the closure of 13 years of school that we've been working on."
And despite the restrictions on large gatherings that will likely be in place for at least the next few months, Schank hopes Mt. Blue High School can find some way to offer closure to seniors after a semester unlike any they've ever experienced before.