Chippewa Valley high school seniors are crestfallen that sports seasons, dances and club meetings have been cancelled − an aftereffect of the coronavirus sweeping across the U.S. and closing schools in its wake.
But most of all, seniors regret they won’t get to experience the final, joyful months of high school alongside their classmates.
“I’m really sad I can’t spend these last few months with my class before we all go our separate ways,” said Ally Klauck, a senior at Eau Claire’s North High School who plans to attend a four-year university in the fall to study business.
Local school districts are facing a quandary: How to hold a graduation ceremony − a party that draws hundreds of students and family members − when large gatherings are prohibited by the state and warned against by health officials?
Some local high schools are tackling the problem with technology. Others hope to reschedule in-person ceremonies for the summer.
All local school officials emphasized they’ll respect state rules and county health departments’ recommendations.
Caps and gowns during coronavirus
North and Memorial high schools in Eau Claire are planning virtual graduation ceremonies on their original dates, May 28 and May 29, respectively, said principals Cale Bushman and Dave Oldenberg.
“We’re working to put together a virtual ceremony for both schools, so both can observe the traditions they have, singing their alma mater song, giving their speeches, certifying the class,” said Eau Claire schools superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck.
Both Memorial and North are working on separate summer events, possibly in mid-August, for students to return for a reunion - if state health officials allow gatherings at that point, Hardebeck said.
“We really didn’t want to postpone graduation,” she said. “It’s something that students value … it will be historic, even for our community, and we want to celebrate it as such. One of the things that I have been concerned about is after that graduation date comes, could we get our kids back together as one class?”
Both North and Memorial have postponed proms. Tentative new dates are July 10 for North and July 17 for Memorial, Bushman and Oldenberg said.
Altoona High School is taking a different strategy. It’s set four possible graduation dates - May 29, June 12, July 10 or Aug. 7. The school will cancel about a week beforehand if graduation can’t be held on the soonest date, said principal Jim Reif.
“If it still looks bad in late July we’ll consider doing something virtual, or a drive-in. But we really value the face-to-face, traditional graduation ceremony,” Reif said. “This is a request to the parents that lets them (reserve) four weekends throughout the summer.”
Altoona High School’s prom is set for June 5, and the school is looking for an early July date for a backup date.
“It’s going to be a long shot getting the June 5 (date),” Reif said. “We couldn’t have imagined a tougher situation to adapt to.”
Leaders at Chippewa Falls Senior High School hope to hold an in-person graduation ceremony on its original date, June 3. But that day is just a week after Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ current safer-at-home order expires on May 26 - and if large gatherings are still prohibited, graduation will be pushed to July, said Chi-Hi principal Donna Goodman.
“We wanted to do something that wasn’t virtual, that’s our first choice,” Goodman said. “But our backup plan is a virtual graduation.”
Chi-Hi is moving some of its annual festivities - including a senior awards banquet - to virtual celebrations instead, and has cancelled spring prom.
Menomonie High School has also cancelled its prom, which was scheduled in late April. It hasn’t nailed down firm graduation plans yet, but it’s surveying high school seniors about a virtual or in-person summer graduation ceremony, originally set for May 31, said MHS principal Casey Drake.
“So far, many (families) are interested in having some kind of face-to-face event,” Drake said.
The school can’t replicate students’ senior year virtually, Drake said - but they’ll try to make graduation “as meaningful as possible.”
“We all feel terrible about the situation,” he said. “This is something we all wish was different.”
One Chetek business has suggested it can help out.
The Stardust Drive-In Theater in Chetek has offered to host drive-up graduation ceremonies, and the offer has attracted interest from smaller school districts in the area, said the theater’s owner Paul Javener.
The 250-car theater has already begun hosting some drive-up church services, Javener said. It can display videos or photos on its movie screens, and host a small stage if needed.
“I remember graduating even though it was 40-some years ago,” Javener said. “It’d be really nice if they could have a decent send-off. They deserve it.”
For high school classes of 2020, this spring has been especially poignant.
After schools abruptly closed in mid-March, seniors realized their time spent in-person with their classmates - before they go their separate ways after graduation - had come to an end.
“I’m looking forward to hopefully celebrating with a ceremony in the future,” Klauck said. “It’s been nice having my whole family home again. But I do wish I would have had these last couple months with my class.”
Goodman said she believes it was “the biggest loss of the year” for seniors.
Michael Usher, a senior at Regis High School in Eau Claire, says he’s hoping for a late summer in-person graduation ceremony.
“I think we want to get together as a class,” Usher said. “It’s what graduating is, seeing each other one last time.”
School closures mean an unexpected hit for students involved in extracurriculars. Usher will miss his final high school track season; Klauck was set to attend a national conference for DECA, a student career organization, which was also cancelled.
“I remember a lot of people told me to clean out my locker. We didn’t know if we would come back or not,” Usher said of the days before students were sent home. “I was thinking, ‘Well, it’ll be a couple weeks.’ But it really turned out to be a lot longer. It was really surprising.”
For Cole Pecor, a senior at Memorial High School in Eau Claire, his biggest regret is missing the several musical performances and concerts planned for his final year of high school.
Keeping in touch with friends via phones has helped, Pecor said, and he’s been able to sink more time into hobbies: “I don’t feel like I’m completely isolated which is pretty helpful … even when it comes to practicing trumpet, I’ve got plenty of time to do that.”
But if the coronavirus continues to drive college classes online even in the fall semester - which Pecor hopes to spend studying music performance at UW-Stevens Point - it will mean a change of plans.
“If it turns my first semester online, then I’m probably going to have to try to figure out other things I could do,” Pecor said. “I’m not a huge fan of trying to do music schooling online.”
This fall, Usher will begin at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. The spread of the virus hasn’t shaken his optimism for in-person college classes this fall, he said.
Klauck agreed: “Everything’s so uncertain, but I’m remaining optimistic we can go to college in the fall and have an education face-to-face.”
School leaders praised their students’ resilience this spring.
“I’m really very proud of how they’ve handled this whole closure,” Hardebeck said. “This is a very impressive class, to have gone through what they’ve gone through.”
“Make the most of it and try to learn and grow from it,” Reif said. “But it’s okay to be sad for a while, to mourn the loss of your senior year.”