Coronavirus threatens the ‘best three months’ for high school seniors

On the last day of school, students at Mattituck High School usually gather to watch a video yearbook created by their classmates; a highlight reel of their most treasured memories.

It’s one thing on a laundry list of traditions meant to culminate 12 years of hard work: the senior trip, senior prank, senior skip day, final sports season and finally, turning a tassel, walking across the stage and receiving their diploma.

Amid a global pandemic, the likelihood that the class of 2020 will get to participate in these rites of passage wanes as stay-at-home measures persist and schools remain closed until at least April 29 under an order by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

As time went on, there’s been this realization that we might not actually go back.

Hayden Kitz

As the health crisis worsens, many educators are preparing for an even longer closure than first anticipated. While Gov. Cuomo hasn’t announced anything about the fate of schools, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said earlier this week that a decision on whether to resume school this year would be forthcoming.

“We worked hard for 12 years, and it just feels like it’s gone,” said senior Jenna Lisowy, peeking her head out from the sunroof of her Subaru at Breakwater Beach in Mattituck Monday.

As she spoke about the uncertainty, anxiety and loneliness of ‘distance’ learning during the coronavirus outbreak, several more classmates pulled up to the beach to enjoy the sun on one of the first days temperatures reached 60 degrees.

Soon, two dozen seniors sat atop their cars or rolled their windows down — maintaining ‘social distance’ of six feet — commiserating, laughing and listening to music together. 

Jenna, together with classmate Cole DiGregorio, is charged with compiling footage for this year’s video yearbook. “Most of our events are at the end of the year, so we can’t really record that. We’re trying to find ways to not break the law, but also get footage,” she said.

In between launching a drone and panning a camera across his friends’ unconventional meeting, Cole said in addition to working on the video project, the beach is simply an escape from their houses. “We can’t hang out at somebody’s house or really do anything, so we said, let’s just go to the beach and sit in our cars.”

They hadn’t seen each other in nearly a month, since their last day at school on March 12.

“You appreciate school a lot more once you’re not able to go,” said Viki Harkin.

“At first it was kind of exciting, because it felt like an extended spring break,” added Hayden Kitz. Then the reality of how bad the COVID-19 virus actually is set in. “As time went on, there’s been this realization that we might not actually go back,” she said.

High School principal Shawn Petretti said Thursday that he feels for his students and totally understands what they’re going through — his daughter is a senior at Shoreham-Wading River High School this year.

“With every passing day, these decisions are coming closer and closer,” he said.

For the first time since 9/11, an annual eighth-grade trip to Washington D.C. was postponed. Junior prom — Mattituck does not have a senior prom — is still tentatively scheduled for the end of May and Mr. Petretti said if necessary, that event will be switched to the fall.

For underclassmen, delays are frustrating but doable. For seniors, it’s a different story. “To go home from school one day and then it all be over, that’s a tough pill to swallow,” Mr. Petretti said. “You’re talking about the best three months of their high school career.”

If ‘senioritis’ hadn’t set in prior to March 12, remote learning isn’t helping. “A lot of people are wondering if we even have to do work anymore,” Hayden said, pointing out that everyone’s been accepted into colleges already. As deadlines approach to commit to schools, though, decisions must be made without relying on last-minute spring break visits. “I have to pick blind now,” she said, though she’s leaning towards the University of Rhode Island.

Student athletes, Mr. Petretti said, are also missing out on opportunities during what would have been their final season at Mattituck. And juniors who would typically be vying for college recruitment this year aren’t quite sure how things will play out. “It’s a challenge every kid in the country is facing right now,” he said.

To date, the seniors’ trip to Disney, planned for the first week in June, as well as graduation June 27, have not been altered.

Mr. Petretti said he’s holding out hope. “I’m not cancelling anything until I have absolutely no other choice,” he said, still confident that graduation will proceed as usual. “If we can’t, we will get creative,” he said.

Every passing day chips away at the optimism.

“It’s the time of year you look forward to most. But it is what it is,” Viki said. “Once this blows over, I think it’ll bring our grade much closer.”

One thing’s for sure: It’s an unforgettable year for the Class of 2020.