As COVID-19 disrupts many school traditions, the Class of 2020 focuses on the future

By: - April 2, 2020 6:00 am
Dizni DeBerry, a Hillside High School senior, is disappointed that she and her classmates will miss out on many rituals of her final semester, but she has now set her sights on college. (Photo courtesy Dizni DeBerry)

Dizni DeBerry, a Hillside High School senior in Durham, vividly remembers the week before schools closed. In mid-March, DeBerry, 18, and other students in Hillside’s vaunted drama department, after weeks of rehearsals, were preparing to perform Matilda: The Musical, a play based on the hit movie and beloved children’s book. 

But students had heard rumors that Durham Public Schools could possibly close in response to the COVID-19 crisis. If that happened, the play would be canceled.

Their fears were realized March 12 when district officials in Durham, Wake and Orange counties announced schools would close for two weeks beginning March 16 to help slow the spread of the contagious virus.

“We’d practiced for hours every day and on weekends,” DeBerry said. “The news was devastating because we’d put blood, sweat and tears into the play and it was canceled because of the virus, which we understood because everybody’s safety comes first, so we had to accept that and push through for our parents and our families.”

Two days later, Gov. Roy Cooper ordered all public schools closed for two weeks. He has since extended the order until May 15.

The play was just one virus-related disappointment for Hillside drama students.

A spring break trip to St. Lucia for the school’s renowned One Voice Acting Troupe was also canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And the St. Lucia trip had been scheduled after one to Dubai was canceled in January due to escalating tensions in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, in the middle of COVID-19 related chaos, many seniors are waiting on university acceptance letters.

DeBerry, who plans to earn a political science degree and go to law school, has received numerous merit-based scholarships worth thousands of dollars. She has narrowed her choices to Spelman College and Florida A&M University, which have both sent her letters of acceptance. 

There’s little worry about grades. “Teachers are not giving us any major assignments or quizzes,” DeBerry said. “It’s little reading assignments. We read and type up five or six sentences about what we’ve read.”

And the State Board of Education (SBE) adopted new, relaxed high school grading rules last week. For spring courses, students will receive a “pass” unless they were failing a course on March 13, the last day of school. Those students will receive the grade of “withdraw.”

Only grades from fall semester will count toward grade point averages.

The SBE also adopted new guidelines to make earning a diploma easier. Seniors are now only required to earn a minimum of 22 credits to graduate. Some districts have received SBE permission to require more than the 22-credit state minimum.

“We are focusing on the minimum 22 State Board of Education requirements,” Sneha Shah Coltrane, the state’s director of advanced learning and gifted education said last week. “If there is availability and the school is able to do that [provide more than the minimum] and the senior is able to do other requirements, wonderful. However, for graduation purposes, we want to ensure that we are focused on the 22 [minimum requirement] to leap these students forward to their incredible futures.”

The outbreak of the coronavirus has been a disruptive force in education everywhere. Public schools across the nation have been forced to close indefinitely. Millions of students are learning online from home while districts struggle to provide needy students with electronic devices and internet access. Schools have also taken on the enormous responsibility of providing meals to students and families who need them.

School closure has been especially tough on the nation’s 3.7 million high school seniors, however, forcing districts to cancel such senior-driven celebrations as prom.

“It’s disappointing they won’t get a chance to experience many of the senior activities that are so customary,” said Wendell Tabb, the theater director at Hillside. “That’s disheartening, but they are learning many lessons that will serve them well in the years to come.”

May graduations will likely be canceled. Those scheduled for June are also in jeopardy of cancellation.

Joseph Young, a senior at Lake Norman High School in Mooresville, says, “We’ll keep moving forward.” He’s attending NC A&T, where he’ll play football, in the fall. (Photo courtesy Joseph Young)

“It’s something that I was looking forward to, to walk across the stage while my family is there to watch,” said Joseph Young, a senior at Lake Norman High School in Mooresville.“Everything happens for a reason. We’ll keep moving forward.”

Young, a running back on the Lake Norman football team, will attend NC A&T University in Greensboro. Young has received an acceptance letter from the school and plans to study architecture while playing football for the Aggies.

He said deciding which school to attend has been tough for student athletes because the pandemic has made it impossible to visit campuses.

“It takes away chances of going to visit schools and seeing how you feel about them,” Young said. “Schools are going to appear nice when you look at them online but you only to get the feel of the campus when you go there physically on a visit. That’s important because you’re going to be there the next four years of your life.”

The cancellation of spring sports effectively ended the high school athletic careers of thousands of North Carolina seniors.

In addition to playing football, Young was on the Lake Norman track team. The high school track season was canceled, along with all spring sports and the state championship basketball tournament.

“It took away a lot,” Young said of the virus. “We were in the middle of track season and had to cancel that because we didn’t want to risk anything [contracting the virus].”

Like DeBerry and thousands of other North Carolina seniors, Young has continued his education online. But he prefers face-to-face interaction with teachers.

“It’s a little harder because we don’t have that teacher connection anymore,” he said. “At school you could go [to a teacher] during lunch if you had any questions, but now have to do everything on line or through email. It just makes it more difficult.”

But the Class of 2020 is a resilient bunch. In North Carolina, they were among the 1.5 million students who survived Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Tropical Storm Michael and Hurricane Florence, both of which hit the state in 2018.

Damage from the storms forced many schools to close for weeks. Some areas are still recovering.

Washington Post reporter Joe Heim noted in a recent story that “national trauma has accompanied members” of the Class of 2020 their entire lives.”

Here’s what Heim wrote about the Class of 2020:

“Most were born in the dark and often frightening year following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. They were fifth-graders when a gunman killed 26, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn. They were sophomores when another gunman killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. The country has been at war externally since the members of this senior class were born and has been increasingly riven internally as they have come of age.”

When told about that passage in Heim’s story, Young responded:

“That’s why you have family and friends around to comfort you and help you get through that kind of stuff. Just pray about it and hope that everybody it happened to will get through it and their families will be safe.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.