'A Grieving Process': High School Seniors On Graduating At A Distance

Jun 1, 2020

The Agency of Education has released its final guidelines for how to hold a graduation ceremony during a pandemic.

High school seniors are now getting a clearer picture of how their schools will mark this once-in-a-lifetime achievement during a once-in-a-lifetime public health crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic first interrupted Owen Hansen’s senior year about a week before the cross-country ski team’s end-of-season banquet.

“It was my senior year, and really looking forward to it, just kind of the final goodbye,” Hansen said during a recent interview at Mount Anthony Union High School. “We had states. And everyone was really excited for it. And then we found out that we couldn’t have it, and we’re still kind of trying to figure out what to do. So that was kind of — that was a bummer.”

Owen Hansen, who says the last few months have produced a string of disappointments as his senior year ended at Mount Anthony Union High School in Bennington.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Hansen is a big-time high school athlete, and along with cross-country skiing, he was supposed to be a captain on the lacrosse team this spring.

But the season was canceled.

And senior night, when Mount Anthony athletes are recognized for their four years of achievement, was also canceled.

And so when he heard that graduation this year would have to be scaled down, due to the coronavirus, it all kind of crashed down on him.

“Once they really kind of announced that we’re not doing the normal graduation, it upset me,” he said. “Again, being able to share that experience with my friends and my family is pretty important to me. And just, kind of everything hitting me all at once was pretty difficult.”

Mount Anthony administrators are still finalizing the graduation plans, but at this point they’re hoping to do a drive-through ceremony, with the 200 or so seniors lining up in cars in front of the school.

The students will have to wear masks throughout, and when they drive up to the table, they’ll walk out of the car and receive their diploma, in a plastic bag, with no handshakes or hugs.

Parents will have to take pictures from the car, and there will be no congregating, or laughing, or crying with friends when, and if, their caps are tossed in the air at the end.

It’s not exactly what Breanna Hudson imagined her high school graduation would look like.

“Some of us have been together since kindergarten. So we’ve been waiting for this graduation day, you know, our entire lives,” she said. “So I’m glad that I get to walk across the stage and get my diploma. I’m mostly upset that I don’t get to kind of enjoy the moment with my friends.”

"I'm glad that I get to walk across the stage and get my diploma. I'm mostly upset that I don't get to kind of enjoy the moment with my friends." ⁠— Breanna Hudson, MAUHS senior

When Gov. Phil Scott first closed Vermont’s schools in March, the Agency of Education was not asked to come up with a game plan for graduation ceremonies at the time.

Education Secretary Dan French says there was plenty to deal with in addressing the immediate challenges in moving to remote learning.

But as it became apparent that traditional graduations would be off-limits, French was forced to issue the guidelines, knowing that there would be some disappointed students and families this year.

French is a former principal, and superintendent, and he’s given his share of commencement addresses in his time. He says all of those classic graduate speech themes, about rising above adversity, sacrificing for the public good, and looking backwards, and ahead, they’ll all have very special meaning this year.

“You can’t help but think that there are important lessons that this group in particular — since they’ve been directly impacted by the events — will take away as important life lessons,” French said. “And I think this generation and specifically this graduating class is in a unique opportunity to really acknowledge that this is a historic moment for our larger society, but also certainly for the families and the lives of the graduates themselves.”

" ... I think this generation and specifically this graduating class is in a unique opportunity to really acknowledge that this is a historic moment for our larger society, but also certainly for the families and the lives of the graduates themselves." ⁠— Education Secretary Dan French

All across Vermont, high schools are now coming up with plans that work for their students, and their campus, and their communities.

Some ceremonies will be held entirely online. Other schools are using fairgrounds to try to gather as many students in one place as possible, while maintaining social distance.

At the tiny K-12 Danville School in the Northeast Kingdom, where there will be 22 high school grads this year, an almost-traditional ceremony will be held, though every grad will get her or his temperature taken before picking up a diploma.

And in Bennington, banners are going up on Main Street to honor the Class of 2020.

Melissa Currier is a member of a parents’ committee that was supposed to be raising money and planning for a post-graduation party in Bennington.

There’s no party this year, so Currier says the group is organizing a parade for the day after graduation, raising some extra cash to give every grad a $100 check, and putting these banners up.

“This is just a way for the community to see that we truly are celebrating our students,” Currier said. “We care about them, and it does bother us that they don’t have an opportunity to go through all the normal senior activities like proms and spring sports and award ceremonies and their graduation. And it’s just a statement to them to tell them that the community does care.”

Bennington employee Steve Langlois hangs a banner honoring the Mount Anthony Union High School seniors along Main Street.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Mount Anthony Union High School senior Molly Cohen says it’s been hard to have her last few months of high school just kind of slowly disappear.

She knows her class, and the high school administration, didn’t want any of this, and everyone is doing their best to adjust.

So she’ll pick up her diploma, while wearing a mask and maintaining social distance, and get ready for whatever lies beyond high school.

Molly Cohen, a graduating Mount Anthony Union High School senior, stands in front of her home in Bennington.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

“There’s definitely like a grieving process, there is. And you know, I’ve definitely had that. And there’s times where I’m like, ‘Oh my God. I don’t get my prom. This sucks,’” Cohen said. “And then I kind of have to take a step back, and think about the situation. I think about how lucky I am to be living here, and to be safe and healthy. And it really does kind of put everything into perspective where, yeah, you know, obviously not an ideal situation. But I’ll grieve my losses, and get over it, and know that there are bigger problems going on right now.”

Because even among all that’s been lost, Cohen said her classmates in the class of 2020, in Bennington and all across the country, have learned some important lessons during all of this.

"I really think that my age group is never going to take anything for granted, ever again, in this kind of going into the world knowing nothing is certain. So you know, when things do go right, or exciting things do happen, there's just going to be this new sense of gratitude." — Molly Cohen, MAUHS senior

“I really think that my age group is never going to take anything for granted, ever again, in this kind of going into the world knowing nothing is certain,” Cohen said. “So you know, when things do go right, or exciting things do happen, there’s just going to be this new sense of gratitude. And I think that’s instilled in all of us, and I think that’s a really special thing.”

The Mount Anthony Union High School graduation ceremony is scheduled for June 12.