MARICOPA — High school graduation and prom for American teenagers are age-old traditions. Ingrained in American culture, the two events signify a coming of age — leaving childhood and entering adulthood.
And as schools around the nation are forced to close for the rest of the school year due to the spread of COVID-19, the lives of high school seniors, and their peers, have been uprooted.
“When (Sydney Lomeli) found out, she came home in tears. She’s like, ‘everything I’ve worked for — it’s not fair,’” said Lucinda Lomeli, mother of the Maricopa High School senior. “Her and her friends were all upset, and she was crying. And she’s like, ‘What’s the point?’”
Sydney was looking forward to prom for more than one reason — the April 25 formal also fell on her 18th birthday. She and her friends had already bought their dresses, and planned the night down to the last detail.
Sydney was involved in Link Crew, photography and yearbook while at MHS, and has lived in Maricopa for the last 10 years. She plans to go to Central Arizona College in the fall, but that hinges on her ability to find work to fund her expenses for college.
“She’s had this plan for the last couple of years, and now everything is up in the air,” Lomeli said. “She doesn’t get a prom. She doesn’t get a graduation. She can’t start a new job that she already had planned on, and now we need to figure out how to pay for college.”
She and her friends Amoni James and Savannah Shelabarger will also miss graduation, another milestone they had been looking forward to.
“The principal has made the announcement that they’re working on a virtual graduation, which is nice, and we appreciate it. I mean, they did not prepare for this. So, clearly, this is not the school’s fault. Nobody’s prepared,” Savannah’s mom, Trisha Shelabarger, said.
The kids understand the reasoning for the virtual graduation, but that doesn’t mean it fills the hole left by canceling the in-person event.
“We heard about it, but I feel like it’s not the same as actually having a graduation ceremony,” Sydney said. “Even if we did have a virtual graduation, I wouldn’t enjoy it as much as I would have at an actual ceremony.”
“It’s sad to not be able to be able to walk across the stage, especially because a lot of us have a lot of family who were expected to come out and watch this,” Amoni added. “A virtual graduation just wouldn’t be the same.”
Amoni is a 17-year-old senior at MHS and is very involved in her sports and extracurriculars. Originally from Wisconsin, she was a cheerleader and had just started her final season of track when schools shut down.
“It’s pretty sad,” Amoni said. “For track, we only got to go to two meets before our season was canceled. We had a lot of people expecting to go to state championships this year. This was also our first year that we got a senior night with senior banners and we were going to be able to be walked by our parents. All of that got canceled.”
Her future also rests on factors that are now up in the air. She was accepted into Northern Arizona University, but will be unable to attend unless she receives a sports scholarship, and with seasons postponed indefinitely, she won’t have the stats she needs to apply.
“We’re all sad about it and we are upset about it,” Amoni said. “I just have to think about the fact that there’s nothing really the school could do because it isn’t their choice. That’s the only thing that really makes me feel a little bit better is I know they’re not doing this by choice or to make us feel this way.”
Their classmate Savannah is in the same boat. An AP and honors student, she had just been accepted by Arizona State University to study architecture when she found out schools were being shut down. The 18-year-old is an only child, and her parents were holding out hope until the other shoe dropped last month.
“When the governor made the announcement about the schools closing, that’s really when I was like, ‘There’s no hope,’” Shelabarger said. “At least up until that point, we knew it was a possibility, and we knew it with a likelihood, but we still had the hope.”
Savannah has lived in Maricopa for 17 years, and attended Maricopa Unified schools for the entirety of her education. She was also involved in theater, Link Crew, DECA, Interact Club and choir.
“The kids have been looking forward to this, and working her butt off. I mean … she doesn’t do the bare minimum, she goes above and beyond,” Shelabarger said. “These pieces of her senior year that she’s been looking forward to aren’t going to be there. It’s hard, because you realize what everybody is going through — we’re healthy. We’re at home. We’re safe. We’re super grateful for that. We know what people are going through out there, but they’ll never get this back.”
Savannah enjoyed sports too, and played varsity girls soccer and club soccer. Luckily, she was able to finish out her senior season.
“It’s so tough because I have a lot of friends that got to finish out their senior year in their schoolwork or activities, and I have a lot of friends that just started whatever sport they were doing,” Savannah said. “They don’t get their senior night, their last home game. And even if they did, they didn’t realize that it was. Something was taken from them.”
Among her busy summer plans of senior trips and sleep-away camp, Savannah had planned an extended trip to Italy to visit an exchange student who had stayed with the family last year. The two girls had grown close, but now both are quarantined, with her Italian friend stuck inside and isolated for the last six weeks.
The bond of friendship is often tied to the school campus for teenagers, where kids can interact and socialize with their peers between classes.
“Life on campus was so full of energy and fun,” Savannah said. “Even if you had to do the schoolwork, you still had connections and now that we’re stuck at home, you can text them or FaceTime, but it’s not the same.”
Some students like Savannah have done hybrid learning in the past, and are easily accustomed to the transition. Shelabarger says the school has helped tremendously with the adjustment.
“This is all on her, but I do think the teachers have been super supportive,” Shelabarger said. “I think the administration, their efforts have been superior in dealing with what they got handed. I mean, it’s tough.”
Other students are not having as much of an easy time though. Lomeli voiced her feelings that the school should have been more prepared to teach online in a crisis event.
“I think they could have planned it better,” Lomeli said. “I understand this is new times, and this is just craziness. But I think being in 2020, they should have had better online support, especially for seniors.”
MHS is only providing a take-home laptop and Wi-Fi hotspot to seniors so they may complete their graduation requirements. Students began picking up the laptops on Wednesday.
Sydney said it’s harder to concentrate on school work with the constant distractions in a home environment, and she isn’t accustomed to the learning style required of online schoolwork.
“I’m not the type of kid to learn online,” Sydney said. “I have to be the type of kid to be hands-on, because I feel like if I’m at home doing online work, then I’m going to get distracted very easily.”
Amoni is taking online learning in her stride, but she agrees it’s easy to be distracted. Her mom is part of the essential staff working at Banner amidst the crisis, but that leaves Amoni at home to watch her 12-year-old sibling during the day.
Whole families are having to adjust to new schedules, with both parents and kids struggling to share Wi-Fi and work online from home. The three girls and their families are handling it differently, but effectively.
Lomeli said it’s been tough having a teenager “locked in the house” but there is one positive, “I save on gas,” she said laughing.
Shelabarger said her family has taken the opportunity to purchase bikes and have been spending more time outside and with their two pups Buster and Lily.
“Before this, honestly, we did not see each other very often as a family,” Shelabarger said. “We definitely are seeing each other a lot more. Our dogs are very happy to have us home.”
Lucinda Lomeli is accepting birthday cards for her daughter, which can be emailed to email@example.com.