COVID-19 precautions mark end of high school senior year in Minnesota

| May 20, 2020 | 0 Comments

Maggie Wussow, a senior at Visitation School in Mendota Heights, stands next to a sign displayed in the front yard of her home in Apple Valley May 8. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Emily Wilder is disappointed she is missing out on longstanding traditions that make a senior year of high school so special.

She knows them well, having attended every graduation ceremony at Bethlehem Academy in Faribault since 2013. Three older siblings graduated from her school, and her younger sister is on track to do so in 2025.

“Graduation is like passing from adolescence to an adult, and going on to the real world,” she said. “I always thought that was a cool way to mark the transition.”

She looked forward to her own turn in the senior spotlight this spring. But classes went online in mid-March in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

And nothing’s been the same since. Safety precautions related to COVID-19 have upended high school graduation ceremonies and other end-of-school-year traditions across the state.

“It’s a magical whole week at my school,” Wilder said of graduation activities. They would have started May 20 this year with the school’s traditional Mary ceremony, when students honor the Blessed Virgin, and seniors thank their parents and others who have helped them reach this point in their lives.

The Mary ceremony was held this year, but it was a virtual experience. Wilder remembers previous years, when people teared up watching seniors distribute daisies and roses to their loved ones.

“It’s a shame that (it) can’t happen the way it’s always been done,” Wilder said.

Maggie Wussow, a senior at Visitation School in Mendota Heights, agrees with Wilder’s sentiment. “There is a sense of pride … in that we’re getting through this pandemic and that we’ve been able to cope with it as a class,” she said, “but there’s also disappointment in all the things we just naturally assumed would happen in the school year.”

At Visitation, that means not being able to participate in a senior retreat and service projects that seniors normally perform the last two weeks of school. Being in the school’s orchestra, Wussow also missed her final concert, and she missed her last robotics competition.

Shari Piehl, English teacher and senior class adviser at Bethlehem Academy, said the Mary ceremony is a particularly emotional event. It’s important for students to see and understand that, she said, because faith is the foundation of their education. As part of the virtual Mary ceremony, seniors were encouraged to mail two cards a classmate designed that depict Mary: one with a bouquet of roses, and one with Mary draped in daisies.

Despite the disappointment, Wilder sees a silver lining.

“Every day is a blessing,” she said. “I’ve gotten to spend a lot more time with my family.” In addition to being with her parents and siblings, the family is hosting an exchange student from Korea.

Before the pandemic, Wilder said, she would be away from home much of the time for school, sports and work.

“So, I could never … hang out with my family,” she said, which “does goofy things all the time.”

For example, during the state’s stay-at-home order, the family had its own “spirit week” with dress-up days: summer camp day, pajama day and celebrity day, when Wilder was Meryl Streep’s character in “Mama Mia.”

“My favorite was overalls day,” she added. “It was really fun.”

The family also has been holding “random dance parties,” when she and her siblings, gathered around the kitchen table, can no longer focus on homework. “We get up and dance to fun songs like ‘Dancing in the Moonlight,’” she said.

Like Wilder, seniors across the archdiocese have mixed emotions about this unprecedented end to their senior year.

Ella Sutherland, a senior at Hill-Murray High School in Maplewood, is disappointed that things she’s been looking forward to won’t happen, including the senior Mass and senior retreats. She also thinks about the last time she wore her school uniform and the last day she was at school, which she said was great.

But, she tries to focus on the positives. “I’ve gotten a lot out of this, just in terms of faith,” she said. “I have gotten to … focus on my relationship with God and start praying a lot more, because that’s now what I have time to do, which is what’s most important in my life.”

Sutherland said she has taken advantage of more time at home by creating good habits in her prayer life and reading the Bible more. She also appreciates the time to explore nature.

Her mother, Peg Sutherland, said Ella understands that God has a plan in all this. “You have a group of kids who are very strong in their faith and can see a higher purpose in all of it,” she said.

While Peg feels the sense of loss, she said, “I almost think we parents are mourning it more for them, because we know what it should be like for them.”

But, Peg said, she is heartened by responses to the pandemic that she sees among students and teachers. “Teachers don’t go into high school education thinking they’re going to be teaching classes online,” she said. “They love these kids, and Ella’s teachers are so incredible.”

At one point during the online class regimen, school officials asked the seniors to drive to the school to pick up lawn signs celebrating the senior class.

“I saw a video, and the kids drove through a parade of their teachers cheering and waving,” Peg said. “I was crying. They genuinely love these kids and feel for them, too.”

At St. Agnes School in St. Paul, headmaster Kevin Ferdinandt said faculty have been sensitive to the needs of seniors, including fun and laughter. As one example, some faculty members shot a video of them dancing and singing to Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

“We had so much fun,” he said.

St. Agnes senior Andrew Brownell said the hardest part is missing senior year highlights such as senior prom, the senior lock-in and sports. He would have run track and field this spring, but the season was canceled.

Brownell also misses seeing his classmates, but he has learned how to put things in perspective.

“You have to be grateful for the time you have with friends and others, and not let that time go to waste,” he said. “Don’t take it for granted because, just like the virus, no one saw it coming. You never know when that time can end.”

One tradition at Visitation that seniors will miss is the spring day that they sign each other’s uniform shirts. “That is a big, big part of that end of the year that they’ve seen seniors do for a long time. And that’s not something they’ll be able to do in person,” said Rene Gavic, head of school.

But while she has seen grief and sadness among seniors, Gavic has also noted their resiliency, their ability to step up, to be leaders, to look outside themselves and see the needs of the broader community and even underclassmen.

Visitation seniors led underclassmen in making a video to lift the spirits of all the faculty, she said. The seniors also sent an uplifting note to all underclassmen that included inspirational quotes to motivate others to keep their chins up and move forward, she said.

“It really takes your breath away,” Gavic said. “It’s what you’d hope would come out of a … Catholic high school — to look beyond themselves.”

“They know this is a crisis, and that a lot of people are suffering, and they’re stepping into that space with beautiful grace,” she added. “We’re incredibly proud of them.”

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