West Salem senior Alexandria Hardeman sits at a May 2019 Salem-Keizer budget committee meeting to speak about the student newspaper budget. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
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Ian Huntington was boarding the team bus with his South Salem High School basketball teammates when their coach called.
It was Wednesday, March 11. The boys team was heading to Portland for the state championship tournament, which began the following day. Huntington, a senior, learned the tournament was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“He called us and said that the season was over, we’re not going up to Portland,” Huntington said. “It was a pretty surreal experience. Everyone was crying in the locker room.”
While thousands of students and parents in the Salem area are adapting to distance learning, which began this week, high school seniors have been left with no classes, no easy way to see friends and few of the rituals that mark the end of high school and move to adulthood.
“We’ve been waiting since kindergarten, everyone telling us about graduation and senior year and how great senior year is and it just kind of got taken away from us,” said McKenzie Williamson, 18, a senior at West Salem High School.
Gov. Kate Brown ordered Oregon schools to close on Monday, March 16. At the time, the closure was supposed to last two weeks - effectively an extended spring break for Salem-Keizer students. Brown then continued the closure through April 28 and finally decided there would be no return to the classroom this school year.
Last week, the Oregon Department of Education said seniors who were passing courses as of March 13 would receive credit for those courses, effectively graduating much of the Class of 2020 with no notice or celebration.
About 1,900 of Salem-Keizer’s 2,700 seniors are done with school, district spokeswoman Lillian Govus said.
Williamson went to West on March 13, preparing for a closure of several weeks, but said she only went to one class.
“I had no clue that was my last day of high school. I wish I would have spent it better. I wish I would have gone to all my teachers and said goodbye,” she said.
Emotions among the Class of 2020 are mixed. Some are relieved to no longer have to worry about grades or can now move on to work and save for college.
Those who were close to passing needed classes must now complete work from home, adding the need to learn online platforms on top of the academic work waiting.
“There’s like a whole new anxiety and fear about graduation because the path looks different than it would have,” said Larkin Foley, who teaches English at McKay High School.
Many young adults are dealing with a mix of grief, boredom, loss and frustration, said Ryan Marshall, lead counselor at South Salem High School.
When people are grieving, whether it’s the loss of a loved one or of a ritual marking 13 years of school, Marshall said control can help them recover. That’s difficult to find right now.
“Even just the power to be able to say, ‘I don’t want to be with you right now’ or the control you have to say ‘I don’t want to go to prom.’ Control can be so powerful in the grief and loss process and now there’s so much out of control,” Marshall said.
Seniors are using video calls, Instagram and Snapchat to stay in touch with friends, but all agreed it’s not the same as hanging out in person.
“It does suck because this is kind of the last moments in high school and childhood that we’re going to be able to see each other again before college and before life actually starts,” Huntington said.
They know being part of the Class of 2020 is a story they’ll be telling children and grandchildren. Some said knowing they’re living through a historic moment is one of the few positives.
“You know how sometimes your parents are like, ‘You didn’t know how hard anything is’?” said Alex Hardeman, a senior at West. “I’m sitting here in the middle of a global pandemic unable to see all my friends and graduate. Seriously?”
Graduation ceremonies for Salem-Keizer’s high schools haven’t been officially canceled, but won’t take place as scheduled in early June unless the governor lifts her order prohibiting large gatherings. Most seniors and high school staff are expecting that won’t happen.
That’s been a blow for many seniors, particularly those who struggled early in high school and got on track academically.
Carly Amida, 18, is a second-year senior at North Salem High School and part of the school’s Islander Club. She’s completed her required credits and said graduation is a big deal in Salem’s Pacific Islander community. Relatives come from out of town to celebrate, and buy lei, big banners and throw elaborate parties.
“It’s a whole big ordeal,” she said.
Amida said her mom didn’t finish high school and she was looking forward to the celebration.
Instead, last week she got a call from the school saying she’d completed her credits.
“It just feels so weird, just getting a call saying, you know, ‘You’re done with school, congratulations, bye!’”
She’s starting a job at Amazon’s Salem warehouse, she said, helping with family expenses and hoping to attend Chemeketa Community College in the fall.
Eliandra Yatilman, a fourth grader at Auburn Elementary School, and Dale Dela Cruz, a North Salem High School senior, sing "Lava" at the Auburn Islander Club's first family night on Feb. 6, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
Her boyfriend, Dale Dela Cruz, is also a senior at North. He started junior year with only four of the 24 credits needed for an Oregon diploma but managed to catch up with online classes and extra work.
Both said they miss seeing people at school and have heard the same from friends, even those who didn’t like going to school before everything shut down.
“I miss all the teachers honestly. Even the ones I hated. I’d rather deal with them than do nothing at home,” Dela Cruz said.
Their prom plans were also scuttled. Dela Cruz’s aunt had rented a limo for him, his friends and their dates. Amida was having a dress made, a faded blue full-length gown with cream accents made from an Islander tribal fabric.
In addition to big events like graduation, seniors are mourning traditions they’ve seen older classmates and siblings take part in that they won’t get to experience.
McKay High School holds an all-school senior assembly where students don their caps and gowns and are recognized in front of their younger classmates for accomplishments.
At South, there’s an annual powder puff sports competition between juniors and seniors, Huntington said. Girls volleyball players coach boys, who play against each other, and boys football players coach girls.
Williamson said she was working on senior pranks with friends after being disappointed with the Class of 2019’s showing at West. Their plans revolved around the school parking lot.
“There’s a lot of drama with parking at West because there’s not enough,” she said.
In the spring, school staff patrol the parking lot in a golf cart, ticketing newly-licensed sophomores who haven’t gotten a school parking permit yet, she said. She and friends had planned to saran wrap the cart to the school flag pole.
They were also going to host a campout in the section of the lot where juniors park the morning after seniors’ last day of school, so juniors wouldn’t have a place to park.
Principals, counselors and teachers are working to commemorate the Class of 2020 even if no in-person events can be held. For now, other priorities, like getting online classes running, are taking most of their time.
“I was so excited to graduate 2020 because it's so even and I was hyping it up,” Williamson said. “There’s gonna be Olympics, we’re gonna vote, we’re gonna go to prom, it’s gonna be great. And now everything is out of whack.”
Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
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