Emma Simon was on a run. That part wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was her route. The Santa Rosa High School senior recently found herself running west from her home and, without really thinking about it, onto the Mendocino Avenue campus of her high school.
It was entirely empty.
She hadn’t been there since March 13, the day Simon and so many others thought they were leaving school for a week-long spring break, perhaps a couple of weeks if Santa Rosa City Schools decided to shutter campuses for a stretch in an abundance of caution over the growing coronavirus pandemic.
Officials did, of course, extend the closure beyond spring break. First by a couple of weeks and then by ending in-person classes and events altogether. School would not re-open.
So Simon’s midday visit became a goodbye of sorts. She didn’t plan it. But she also didn’t plan to have the final quarter of her senior year abruptly aborted.
“It was 11 a.m. on a Wednesday,” she said. “There should have been students there. There should have been school and class. I kind of walked around. It ended up being a really weird thinking time for me. I thought, ‘Oh this is where we ate lunch freshman year,’ and ‘Here is where we went sophomore year.’ It was definitely sad, but I would say it was nice. It was a little bit of closure. It was a little bit of a chance to say goodbye in a weird way.”
There has been no alternative for the class of 2020 but to endure weird goodbyes.
In an effort to confront the rapid spread of the coronavirus, traditional school - on campus, in classrooms, with peers - was canceled for the vast majority of North Bay students after spring break in March. School continues, but in the form of “distance learning.” Lessons are delivered online, students remain at home and every single extracurricular activity from sporting events to spring theater productions were canceled.
And with them went so many of the rites of spring for graduating seniors: Prom, senior picnics, Project Graduation all-night parties, even traditional graduation ceremonies. These milestones are gone in many cases, on hold in others and dramatically altered in still more.
School officials across the North Bay are polling students: Would you come back for a graduation ceremony in the fall? Would you participate if ceremonies were online? Do you want a lawn sign announcing your impending graduation? The signs, now being distributed to seniors and their parents at drive-thru stations on empty campuses throughout the county, are one of the only tangible signs of celebration. For these seniors, it’s clearly a disappointing end not only to their high school years, but their adolescence.
Graduation, for so many, marks not just an end but a beginning. The class of 2020 is wrestling with saying goodbye on terms they could never have foreseen and walking into a future that is entirely upended. And for many, the sting comes in waves, not unlike the grieving of a death.
“If I had known that was the last time I would see a lot of people I would have done things a lot differently. I would have thought about it a lot more,” Simon said. “I don’t remember a single class or what we did that day and I’d like to have memories of my last day of high school for the rest of my life.”
And graduation and senior sunset and Project Grad night? She’s still coming to terms with those losses, too.
“It’s the culmination,” Simon said. “Honestly, I feel like everything I have worked for the past four years, all of that hard work, has been taken away from me.”
Missing the small moments
For Cardinal Newman senior Isabella Brunner, there is some irony in the fact that a catastrophe is keeping her class from graduating together, as a group. As sophomores, this class endured the Tubbs fire that razed half of their campus and kept them at separate locations for months. There have been canceled events because of subsequent wildfires, massive power shutoffs, once in a generation floods. No school year has gone off without a hitch for this class.