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Montgomery senior Vince Ausiello, center, hands out signs to parents and seniors who won't be holding an official graduation this year. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Pandemic brings abrupt, disappointing end to high school for Sonoma County students

For high school seniors in Sonoma County, graduation marks not just an end but a beginning. The class of 2020 is saying goodbye on terms they could never have foreseen and walking into a future entirely upended. Here are their stories.

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E mma 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.

Honestly, I feel like everything I have worked for the past four years, all of that hard work, has been taken away from me.Emma Simon, Santa Rosa High School senior

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.”

Class of 2020 Yearbook

We've created a yearbook to honor Sonoma County's class of 2020. Go here to flip through its pages.

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.

Like most high school students, Brunner admits there were some days that school didn’t sound like the greatest. But for Brunner, showing up on campus always did. She called her classmates and the school community her family.

“I think on the Newman campus, it’s just showing up every day and having that sense of community. There isn’t a day when you walk through the campus and don’t feel at home,” she said.

What will she miss about that?

“God, it’s just the small moments that anyone takes for granted, that you think of — something minor — when you really look back at it, it’s so amazing,” she said.

At Cardinal Newman, the senior class goes on an annual retreat but they have to split into two groups. The first group attended their retreat around the first of the year, but the second group, of which Brunner was a part, hadn’t had theirs when the year ended abruptly. The theme? Immersion, Brunner said.

“Putting your whole self into the situation, devoting all your time and your effort into one thing and make the most of it,” she said.

She’s still thinking about what immersion means to her, especially when life in the spring semester of her senior year doesn’t look like she thought it would.

“You know what? This is a bad and unfortunate situation but I think it’s given me a lot of time to self-reflect and grow and focus on things that I might want to do,” she said.

The shelter-in-place order is giving Brunner an opportunity to learn about herself.

“I think a general agreement from a lot of seniors is it’s kind of finding out more about ourselves and those you are close with,” she said. “For the Cardinal Newman class of 2020, that is why these big events are so important — we have already been through so much together, we kind of wanted to finish it out together.”

‘This is kind of serious’

Cloverdale High senior Dylan Scaramella knew something was really up when his baseball games started getting canceled. “It was pretty early in the season and we were going to play Sonoma Academy and they canceled,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh man, this is kind of serious.’ ”

The Eagles, for whom Scaramella pitched and played outfield, hitting a second-on-the-team .583 before the season was called, only got four games in.

“Baseball for sure is my No. 1,” Scaramella said of his list of disappointments in how the year ended.

But he also remembered that he hadn’t said goodbye to any of his teachers, and recognized there are classmates he won’t likely connect with any time soon. And of course the big things.

We were getting close and getting excited and it got taken away. But it’s a world pandemic. Everyone is going through it.Dylan Scaramella, Cloverdale High senior

“I was looking forward to graduation and crossing the stage,” he said.

And also the little things.

“On the last day of school we have a tradition of floating the river. Everyone is invited,” he said. This year, that won’t happen.

But Scaramella knows he is not alone in his disappointment. In a way, that makes it easier.

“We were getting close and getting excited and it got taken away,” he said. “But it’s a world pandemic. Everyone is going through it.”

Important milestones

For Violet Wang, a senior at Casa Grande High in Petaluma, her first reaction that spring break might morph into a longer break from class? Happiness.

“At first, I was a little bit happy. I didn’t really want to go to school,” she said.

But despite appreciating the time she suddenly had to do the things — reading, drawing — that she never found the time for before, the reality sunk in quickly.

“I was surprised that I actually missed being in the classroom,” she said. And the realization that a break from day-to-day schoolwork came at a cost of so many other senior-specific activities was hard.

“I’m actually missing out on important milestones,” she said.

Wang was supposed to travel across the country this summer — Sacramento, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. — for scholarship ceremonies. All canceled.

“It just sucks. I feel like those are once in a lifetime senior experiences,” she said.

But Wang, too, said there was solace in knowing she’s far from alone. These pangs of loss she feels are being felt by students across the North Bay, across California, across the U.S. and across the globe.

“It kind of makes me feel better that it’s not just me experiencing it. Everyone is in the same situation, no matter where they are in the world,” she said.

Mixed feelings

For Piner High senior Paula Reagan, the feelings are mixed. She, like many students who are 13 years into their education, felt like she was losing steam on her high school career anyway. She has a job, she is an active video gamer and school was beginning to feel more and more like a social event rather than an educational one. But that is kind of the vibe of the second semester of senior year.

“I’m just not really a social person,” she said. “High school for me is more social.”

But with a little prodding, Reagan started to tick off the things she would miss: grad night and Day on the Green, a Piner High tradition.

“There’s food and activities and water fights. I was looking forward to that,” she said. “So senior Day on the Green and grad night are the two big ones I was like, ‘Oh dang.’ It’s the last hurrah you get with your senior friends. That’s your memory. You might not see them again.”

And yearbooks? Getting all of those signatures of classmates you may or may not keep in touch with? She wanted to do that, too.

“Oh, I totally forgot about that,” she said. “I used to do that every year. I used to do that with people I wasn’t even close with.”

Never going back

On the Friday before spring break, Piner senior Arsh Kaur couldn’t wait to start her week away from school.

“I usually stay to talk with friends and stuff, but I was just eager to start spring break and I left right after school,” she said. “I just kind of wish that I had done more, maybe took more photos, maybe goofed around more. It will hit me at random moments: I’m done with school basically, I’m never going back.”

“What I miss more now is normal school day, seeing friends, joking around,” she said. “I think everybody says ‘Hey school sucks,’ but being in a community and being with friends every day, just to have that be the last time?”

And Kaur feels the loss for her family, too.

“My parents had college in India, but I would have been the first kid to have a full-on graduation ceremony,” she said. “Relatives in Canada were thinking of coming down.”

Kaur said she and her family will now likely celebrate the graduation of her younger brother as if it were her own.

“Hopefully they will get that chance with my brother,” she said.

Focusing on the future

Kensy Mendoza got into all of the biggies on her college application list: UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis, Cal Poly, UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley. The day that she accepted a spot in the freshman class at UC Santa Cruz, there were tears in the Mendoza household.

“When I finally committed, they were so happy,” said Mendoza, a senior at Roseland University Prep. “They know that was my dream school.”

In a way, it was a collective dream for the Mendozas. Immigrants from El Salvador, Mendoza’s parents put everything they had into Mendoza’s older brother’s education and now hers. She is the first one in her family to go to a four-year university.

“My parents are immigrants and they came here when I was little,” she said. “I know all the sacrifices that they have made for me. I know this is a way I can pay them back.”

When she was younger, she understood her parents’ sacrifice simply from the tone of her mom’s voice, the sadness she sometimes gave way to on the phone.

“My mom would always be talking to my grandparents on the phone and I would hear stories,” she said. “You could see how much it hurt them to leave their parents.”

“Especially as you get older you start to realize a lot more, you really notice everything that they have done for you and everything they have sacrificed to get you where you are and to give you the opportunities you have here,” she said.

So yes, Mendoza is sad to miss out on her class camping trip, and senior prank day and the schoolwide rally in which each class physically moves to a new corner of the gym to signify their elevation to the next grade. And she will miss the traditional graduation ceremony and the party at her house afterward, which was to include cousins who were set to drive from American Canyon.

But following the lead of her parents, Mendoza said she’s trying to keep her eyes forward. Rather than focusing on the ceremonies and parties and rallies that she’ll miss, she wants to remember that college is her reward for the hard work of these past four years, that becoming a Banana Slug is her prize.

“My parents still want to see me walk the stage,” she said. “But my mom was like, ‘Look at everything you have accomplished, this doesn’t affect everything you have accomplished. You are still going to college.’”

Mendoza knows her parents are right.

“I know I earned that spot at the university,” she said. “And I’m still able to do that.”

‘We don’t get closure’

El Molino senior Owen Searles said it’s not necessarily the big events that strike him when he thinks about what’s been lost in his senior year. It’s the relatively small things.

“It doesn’t have to be these big events like prom or anything,” he said. “’It’s, wow, I’m never going to have my digital film class again, or be in math at the table with all my friends again.”

And teachers? He can’t say goodbye the way he anticipated.

“I have teachers I really like,” he said. “Not getting to say goodbye in person or anything, that’s hard.”

But he keeps going back to the small stuff he’ll miss.

“All of these things you go through, all of a sudden it just stops,” he said. “It’s so bizarre that we do all this and we don’t get closure.”

‘A second home’

Analy High senior Shantel Shaw had a long list of errands last week: Pick up her senior sweatshirt, pick up her “Proud Graduate” lawn sign and some other stuff. It’s the graduation part that she can’t complete. Not the way she wanted to.

“I would love to walk the stage,” she said. “Thirteen years of schooling just to have an online graduation?”

Shaw credits school officials for working hard toward a solution, for trying to find ways to honor this class. Shaw just had in her mind all of the ways she thought her year and her high school career would wind down.

Shaw, active in Future Farmers of America for her four years at Analy, missed out on FFA’s conference in Anaheim. She’ll miss out on the local FFA banquet, the one where this year’s officers pass the gavel to next year’s leadership team. These are small rewards she’s earned.

I would love to walk the stage. Thirteen years of schooling just to have an online graduation?Shantel Shaw, Analy High senior

“FFA is really my go-to; that is the reason I enjoyed high school,” Shaw said. “Those ag kids are my people, they are my family. Having that family, it’s a second home, it’s not like you walk into math class and it’s ‘Hi, everyone.’ In FFA we see each other probably every other weekend. … It’s definitely hard. It’s frustrating.”

Learning how to adapt

Tech High senior Sam Morrow is trying his best to be philosophical. A basketball and baseball player, he’s trying to learn from this off-season that has been imposed on him and every other student he knows.

He’s reading. He’s meal planning and cooking. He’s running more.

“I’m trying to take it in a positive way, looking at what I can learn or gain that will benefit me in the future,” he said. “Undoubtedly, it’s a horrible situation. It’s sad that we are having to go through it, but it’s just something that we have learn how to get through and learn how to adapt. That’s the approach I’m taking.”

But Morrow does get the occasional emotional sucker punch. Like yearbooks: Will Tech students get any signatures or will his senior memory book be blank?

And graduation. It’s bigger than one night. It will be incredibly strange to miss out not just on the pomp and circumstance, but the marker.

“It’s the ‘Hey I finally did it, I got through it, It was all worth it.’ Now it’s kind of like OK, we don’t get that door opening to the next phase of something,” he said. “It’s a transition without any signal of OK, the change is made.”

On many campuses, members of the senior class start the school year with a group gathering, early in the morning, to watch the sun rise. It marks the beginning of their final stretch together. Those same students gather again, late in the spring, on the eve of graduation, to watch the sun set. It, too, is a demarcation.

The sun will still set on the day these seniors marked on their calendars so many months ago. The coronavirus can’t touch some things. But when the sun dips below the horizon to mark the end of their high school lives, the class of 2020 will watch the light fade alone.

You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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