North High School’s Cayden Clark-Johnson imagined graduation his entire school career. Alondra Bahana-Reza of Strive Prep dreamed of trying on her cap and gown. Regis University student Emilyanne Kuykendall was excited for the ceremony where she would be pinned as a nurse. Coronavirus changed everything for these graduates from the class of 2020.
“It’s been tough. It’s really been emotional for all of them”, said Kate Berger, the assistant principal at North. Berger started working there at the same time these seniors started high school. She is particularly close to the class of 2020 and feels their collective disappointment. “You look forward to senior year for your entire young life.”
North let students out in mid-March for an extended spring break. At that time no one expected this would be the abrupt end of classes. As the magnitude of the coronavirus became clear to administrators, Denver Public Schools decided to move education online and cancel in-person learning for the remainder of the year. It hit the senior class hard.
Athletics, activities and most senior traditions at North were cancelled when campuses shut down. No senior prom, no graduation ceremony and parties, no saying goodbye to friends and teachers. Kate says these things are consequential. “Stuff that to adults is whatever. This is not whatever. This is foundational to who they are becoming as people.”
Cayden says what’s happening now can’t be dismissed. “All our life has been devoted to getting to this point. When you graduate finally you are an adult and you can live for yourself. Graduation symbolizes not only graduation from school but graduating into adulthood.”
The cancellation of the school musical was one of his biggest disappointments. North’s production of “9 to 5” was cancelled a week before it was scheduled to run in late March. Cayden’s twin sister Makenna was the stage manager for the production. “This was going to be one of the biggest shows,” says Makenna. “It’s really sad that your final show, one of the best shows, will not get done and come to fruition.”
Alondra, who is the first person in her family going to college, says she should have spent more time soaking in her high school experience. “I wish I could have enjoyed and cherished the moments I spent at school. I wish I could have enjoyed it one more time because I didn’t know it was the last time.”
College students are also seeing dreams dashed. At nearby Regis University, nursing students Emilyanne Kuykendall and Emma Cooper will leave college with a BSN degree but no pomp and circumstance. “We’re both honor students,” says Emilyanne. “Families were coming in to see us present our projects and now it’s on Zoom. Missing pinning is the saddest thing that got cancelled but the end goal was always to be a nurse.” Emma is trying to find the silver lining too. “Sometimes the best things are different than we imagined. We became nurses during a world pandemic which is amazing.” Both are applying for jobs. They would like to work at Children’s Hospital but there is no one available at this time to train young nurses so employment for these graduates is on hold.
Despite the disruptions, schools have been doing their best to honor graduates. North High School has put yard signs at the homes of every graduating senior. The class of 2020 is being recognized on Facebook and Instagram. North will have a virtual awards night with $3 million dollars in scholarships awarded on May 27 and a virtual graduation on May 28. The school is hoping to get their graduates together in person later in the year when it is safe again.
“I think this will make the whole class of 2020 more resilient,” says Makenna. “High school is such a big part of everyone’s life. Adults remember prom and graduation. That’s your finish line. People turn 18. You don’t realize how big that part of your life is until you look back on it.” Assistant principal Kate Berger agrees. “I have no doubt they will come out on the other side of this stronger as a group and as individuals.”
Vicky Collins is a freelance television producer and journalist with a diverse portfolio that includes network news, cable programming, Olympic sports, corporate and non-profit videos. Vicky has created a Facebook Community called Bucket List Community Cafe which is a digital news site for Denver’s Northside.