On Monday, March 23, when Zoe Morris, a senior at Charlottesville High School, first heard the news that school was closed for the rest of the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she didn’t believe it. “Then I started crying, of course,” she said, “and then I was texting my other senior friends, and we were all just really upset.”

Morris and her friends were not alone; high school seniors across Charlottesville and Albemarle County experienced similar reactions as they grappled with the news that they would be leaving behind many of their friends and teachers without a chance to say goodbye and likely missing out on traditions they had looked forward to for as long as they could remember.

“This whole school year we were all like, ‘Oh, I’m so ready to be done and graduate,’ but now that it’s suddenly over, everyone’s like, ‘I really wasn’t ready,’” said Charlotte Walters, a senior at Albemarle High School.

Zoe Morris Senior Photo

Zoe Morris

Credit: Submitted photo

“It’s terrible that it’s senior year, because you look forward to certain things, like graduation, since kindergarten,” said Maryam Alwan, another senior at Albemarle. “And then, last year, I didn’t go to prom because I thought that I would have senior prom and my mom was like, ‘Why would you go twice? It’s supposed to be memorable so just go next year.’ And now I can’t.”

As these students mourned the loss of quintessential high school moments, they expressed an awareness of the severity of the crisis. 

“People are dying of this virus, and I look around and I’m so thankful that I’m young and in good health and have the means to quarantine, so I don’t want to minimize other people’s pain,” said Kylie Heaps, a senior at Albemarle. On social distancing, she added, “It’s hard to be stuck inside; you just have to remind yourself that it’s for the right reasons.”

While some seniors expressed frustration with peers who hadn’t been taking social distancing seriously, they reported that, for the most part, students are staying home and finding ways to cope. Morris keeps busy taking care of her newly-welcomed foster dog. Heaps recommended a book about how to cope with change, “Who Moved My Cheese?” which helped her look forward to new opportunities. Many seniors mentioned doing now-optional schoolwork to pass the time and provide structure and highlighted the important role technology can play in sustaining a sense of community.

Maryam Alwan Senior Photo

Maryam Alwan

Credit: Submitted photo

“As hard as it is to have to go through this period of time, I’m so thankful that the technology we have exists,” said Heaps, describing meeting with her classmates and her YoungLife group using the video conferencing app Zoom. “I see a lot of people turning to technology where they thought they couldn’t otherwise,” she added.

In addition to regularly scheduling group video calls with friends, Morris, who would normally visit her grandmother three times a week, sees FaceTime as a way to maintain their close relationship without putting her grandmother at risk. Alwan continues to meet with other staff of The Lantern, Albemarle’s literary and art magazine, over Zoom, and a weekly game club at her school has replaced kickball and board games with online games like Skribbl.io. 

When it comes to finding closure, many local seniors are still hoping for an eventual in-person graduation celebration, even if it couldn’t occur until the end of the summer or as late as next winter. “It’s an important thing, ending high school with your peers and saying thanks and goodbye,” Alwan said. “Even if it were in December, I would attend a graduation like that.”

Looking forward, students planning to begin college in the fall worry that their first semester might be online. “I don’t think anyone’s excited for that, but everyone recognizes it’s a possibility,” said Heaps, who hopes to take a gap year to do an apprenticeship in Ecuador, but realizes travel might still be impossible. 

Kylie Heaps Senior Photo

Kylie Heaps

Credit: Submitted photo

For Alwan, who hopes to study at Sciences Po University in France for the next two years, the possibility that travel will still be restricted in the fall casts her future plans into further uncertainty. Charlie Burns, a senior at Charlottesville High School, has yet to decide where he will be headed next year, and not being able to visit the colleges he was admitted to makes the choice more difficult. Moreover, Burns worries about the loss of opportunities for his peers who were relying on a spring and summer income to put toward tuition, but have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Possibilities are narrowing for job-hunting high school seniors at a pivotal moment in their lives.

With so many new unknowns, the COVID-19 pandemic has already changed the way members of the class of 2020 are thinking about their futures. “It’s definitely a reality check to know that nothing is guaranteed in life,” Heaps said. “That sounds cliché, but it really is crazy how quickly things you view as givens can be taken away.”

Heaps expressed hope that her class and young people across the world will come through the difficult path ahead with a heightened sense of unity and flexibility. “The skills we will gain from this will serve us, so hopefully we can become the most empathetic generation and the most adaptable to change,” she said. “Time will tell, I guess. We’ll see if our generation has become more resilient.”