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Shocked and confused, high school seniors navigate a school year cut short by the coronavirus

Apr 23, 2020

Students wait to receive their diplomas at Sullivan Arena in Anchorage. (Photo by Anne Hillman/Alaska Public Media)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has closed public schools through the rest of the school year.

For the 9,606 high school seniors across the state who make up the class of 2020 that means final sport seasons have been cut short and proms and graduation ceremonies have been postponed at best or canceled at worst.

But despite such an abrupt end to a highly anticipated school year, some seniors are taking these transitions in stride.

It was just four months ago, back in January, when the first case of COVID-19 was detected in the United States.

Students had just started the second half of their school year and for seniors that meant ensuring they were on track for graduation, thinking about what colleges they were going to or what jobs they would prepare for, and how they would make most of their last year with their closest friends before moving on to the next phase in their lives.

Love Katoanga is 17. She attends Alaska Middle College School in Anchorage. The school is a partnership between the Anchorage School District and the University of Alaska Anchorage where she earns credit toward both her high school diploma and an associate degree, attending classes at the UAA campus.

She said she’d heard about the coronavirus at the time but wasn’t really that concerned.

“I honestly didn’t think this pandemic would do anything to affect me,” she said. “I was like ‘Oh, it’s like on the other side of the world, no way they’re going to come near us.’”

She said it wasn’t until she started getting emails about an extended spring break, and then another one about schools being closed until May 1, and then another one about prom being canceled that she started to worry.

“It’s just like okay, wow. So this affected me directly. Me, me myself and I,” she said.

Katoanga had an idea of how her senior year would go. She says she was really looking forward to graduation and a graduation party and prom night with her best friend.

“Now, I feel like kind of lost,” she said. She is still waiting on some college admission decisions but she isn’t sure when they’ll come. “I don’t know. It’s just very confusing time, right now.”

Even though she’s still processing these rapid changes, thinking about going to college and getting her Bachelor’s degree in English keeps her in good spirits.

Katie McKenna, a senior at Juneau-Douglas High School in Juneau, said ending her school year this way is a bit of a shock. Her district hadn’t even had spring break yet when school closure began.

“So we didn’t really get to say goodbye to anybody,” she said. She grew up with many of the students in her class, even starting kindergarten with some of them. “And that’s probably the last time I’ll be spending a lot of time with them.”

McKenna is the president of the student council, on the track team, an officer in her school’s National Honor Society, and an environmental activist.

She’s deciding between different offers from universities but canceled campus visits and student preview days have her considering other options.

“I’m also thinking about a gap year just because I’m interested in it,” she said. “But also because if schools are going to be doing online classes in the fall, I would want to make sure I got the most out of my four years.”

She said her biggest worry isn’t really about her future, though. She worries about mostly about the future of her community as a whole.

She had been following the coronavirus story since early January and hopes that officials and citizens learn from this event, she said.

“I have frustration kind of watching this unraveling, even with my peers, they weren’t taking the social isolation seriously,” she said. “It’s frustrating to watch this happen in New York, and then Europe, and then move on and not see a reaction come out at, state level and community level.”

McKenna said her worries come in waves that are hard to predict. Sometimes she does get sad or scared. But she said she keeps reminding herself of one important point.

“I kept reminding myself why we’re doing this and what the reason behind this was,” she said. “I can take not having a track season to end my senior year so other people have a better chance to live. When you frame it that way, it totally puts it in perspective.”

Katoanga and McKenna said they are thinking of ways to still be able to mark those major milestones personally with their families and friends.

Anchorage School District has convened an ad-hoc committee of teachers and students to think about what celebrations are feasible. But the Juneau School District will not have a graduation ceremony. Other districts like the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District are planning to host graduations online.

Katoanga and McKenna said it’s comforting just knowing that they’re in the same boat as thousands of other seniors across the state, and millions across the country.

The pandemic is one of the last few things that bonds the class of 2020 together, even though they’re apart.