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Lost proms, virtual graduations, abrupt goodbyes: Life as a Maryland high school senior during coronavirus

It’s another cloudy day in May, and Madeline Haynes is scrolling through the TikTok app on her cellphone. Best friends Jayla Pittman and Daniel Futrell are FaceTiming, catching up on the last few hours spent apart. Mikyle Gregory is still sleeping.

These high school seniors, spread out across Maryland, haven’t seen the inside of a school building in about two months. Each has handled the abrupt end of senior year with a range of emotions and angst. One thing they all agree on: The coronavirus pandemic cut short the climax of their high school stories.

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Like a book with the final chapter ripped out, they feel incomplete, cheated out of something great. Their new reality has left them straddling planes of uncertainty and grief, battling thoughts about what might have been — and fretting over what’s next.

Wearing the dress that she had chosen for the senior prom that she will never have, Clarksburg senior Madeline Haynes has mixed feelings about the self-quarantine that her family has experienced to socially isolate amid COVID-19. May. 14, 2020.
Wearing the dress that she had chosen for the senior prom that she will never have, Clarksburg senior Madeline Haynes has mixed feelings about the self-quarantine that her family has experienced to socially isolate amid COVID-19. May. 14, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

For right now, they are among the Maryland high school seniors who still have college ahead of them. They fiercely cling to the prospect, wearing their new college T-shirts and sweatshirts like badges of honor. But what college life will look like this fall also remains uncertain, as universities consider shortening semesters or conducting classes mostly online.

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“As long as I can be on that campus in the fall, I will be OK,” said Haynes, a senior at Clarksburg High School in Montgomery County. That’s not assured.

But Haynes said it feels hard to stomach thoughts about the next phase without the norms with which to mark the end of senior year.

“Those rituals and traditions, that’s the end of your high school career, and that ends it all,” she said. “We don’t get that. We get a congratulations email.”

Experts in teen psychology said the ways U.S. teenagers mark the end of childhood usually coalesce toward the end of high school — with proms, final sports games, senior trips and, ultimately, graduation. In the absence of these storied traditions, they might find the transition to adulthood difficult.

“Events help us metabolize the tremendous mixture of emotion, and that’s been wrenched away from seniors,” said Brad Sachs, a psychologist based in Columbia who specializes in adolescents.

“They don’t have these activities to cross the thresholds to get to the next phase, and the next phase isn’t clear, either.”

The uncertain world these seniors stand poised to inherit looks vastly different from the one in which they started their high school careers.

Their transformative years took shape as young people across the country intersected with larger-than-life issues. Climate change, gun control, sexual assault and the opioid epidemic have all made their way past the schoolhouse gate. Names that held no meaning to them as children, such as Greta Thunberg and Parkland, Florida, now prove reminders of life’s challenges.

But for some kids, high school remained the one, safe constant in their lives, an escape from the worldly tumult.

As the world around him splintered and fumed — and violence peaked in Baltimore — Mikyle Gregory, a senior at the city’s SEED School of Maryland, looked to his high school years as a chance to focus on his dream of studying computer science and come of age on his own terms.

“All in all, high school was pretty standard,” said Gregory, who attended the public boarding school since sixth grade. “There were highs and lows, but we had a great time.”

Initially, Gregory and other Maryland students learned March 13 that their schools would close for two weeks. Some panicked about their grades and assignments. Others celebrated the surprise vacation.

“We were in the parking lot, hugging each other,” said Clarksburg’s Haynes. “We were joking around, saying, ‘Don’t get corona! I’ll see you guys in two weeks!’ ”

Officials extended the closure twice before Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and state schools Superintendent Karen B. Salmon announced in a joint news conference May 6 that students would finish the academic year online. Since then, tens of thousands of people in the state of Maryland have contracted COVID-19, hundreds of them 18 years old or younger. More than 2,000 Marylanders have died.

These seniors said they’ve taken the pandemic seriously, though some admit they’ve gone for drives together or gathered in small groups without masks.

Jayla Pittman and Daniel Futrell, best friends who met at Baltimore City College in the 11th grade, consider themselves as close as brother and sister and don’t always feel the need to cover their faces around each other.

“We’re inseparable,” said Futrell.

“Yeah, 24/7,” echoed Pittman.

“Family.”

Soon to attend Bowie State, graduating seniors Daniel Futrell and Jayla Pittman visit the empty Baltimore City College. May. 13, 2020
Soon to attend Bowie State, graduating seniors Daniel Futrell and Jayla Pittman visit the empty Baltimore City College. May. 13, 2020 (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Both will attend Bowie State University come the fall, or whenever in-person learning can resume. For now, they’ll mark the end of their high school tenure in separate households, FaceTiming to fill the void.

“That’s pretty much the hardest thing to deal with right now,” Futrell said. He will celebrate his 18th birthday and high school graduation without pomp and circumstance.

As Baltimore schools set virtual graduation dates in the event students and families cannot gather in the near future, the graduates look to the online ceremonies as tepid celebrations of their accomplishments.

“The Meyerhoff [Symphony Hall] graduation is the big tradition for us, and I won’t get to experience that,” Pittman said.

This generation may have grown up with the world at their fingertips, with video chat and text message, Instagram and Facebook — but they say nothing will replace the feeling of walking across that stage, confetti streaming, diploma in hand.

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Sachs, the psychologist, said part of growing up includes learning that the world can break your heart.

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“That’s how we deepen ourselves and how we develop empathy,” he said. “It’s part of your development to think the world does, and should, turn around you.”

Autumn Blackwell is No. 1 in her class but won't get the traditional valedictorian experience because of the coronavirus. Autumn stands in front of signage outside Kenwood High School in Essex.
Autumn Blackwell is No. 1 in her class but won't get the traditional valedictorian experience because of the coronavirus. Autumn stands in front of signage outside Kenwood High School in Essex. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

Amid all this, students have had to take final exams, finish Advanced Placement classes and keep up their grades — compounding their stress and feelings of inner turmoil.

Autumn Blackwell, a senior at Kenwood High School in Essex, said that while some teachers have checked in on her and her friends, she doesn’t feel most adults fully grasp the toll the past few months have taken on them.

“They’re just concerned about us turning in our work. It doesn’t seem like anyone else really cares,” she said.

Blackwell plans to study biology at Towson University, which has offered her a full scholarship. She made the decision after the pandemic swept into Maryland, weighing several out-of-state schools, including one in California.

“I wasn’t sure it was the best decision, if something like this could happen again,” she said of attending a far-away campus. Her mother, Kim, agreed.

“I was really hoping she’d choose an in-state school for totally selfish reasons, but when this happened, I said, ‘We need to be able to get to each other quickly,’” she said.

Already, the prospect of attending a new school in an online-only setting makes Blackwell feel an impending sense of dread.

Those rituals and traditions ... we don’t get that. We get a congratulations email


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Such concerns have forced many incoming freshmen to reevaluate their choices, said Beth Casey, a college guidance counselor based in Severna Park.

Casey said international travel bans have limited the number of foreign college students claiming spots at many prestigious schools, creating openings at institutions that otherwise would not have gone to some of her clients.

“Kids are getting into schools that they never would have gotten into,” she said. But, at the same time, many parents have financial concerns about sending their children to expensive colleges in the midst of so many unknowns and would prefer they stay local.

“Colleges are having financial difficulties, too, so they’re not in a position where they can throw money at people having financial issues,” she said. “But some are willing to bite the bullet, as long as colleges are willing to give somewhat of a discount.”

Haynes, whose heart landed on Miami University of Ohio the moment she arrived for her campus tour, might defer her enrollment if the school cannot guarantee her a normal first year.

It would be a tough decision. She already has a roommate lined up — also named Madeline — whom she regards as a mirror version of herself with all the same interests, including late-night mac and cheese and sorority rush.

But “I’m not paying that tuition to sit on my bed," Haynes said. “Community college costs a lot less.”

Haynes said “it’s a struggle,” but she tries to remind herself of her luck. She feels bad for her best friend, Kyra, who’s a year younger and might not get to have a traditional senior experience at all.

“I know people are saying it could be worse, and we completely understand it could be worse,” Haynes said. “But just because our problems are a lot smaller doesn’t mean we can’t get upset.”

For Ayden Behn and his South Carroll High School friends, their “big city dreams,” as he puts it, have guided them through a tough couple of months.

Behn’s group met in chorus, and they spend their days sending one another TikTok videos or meeting up in parking lots to talk through their windows.

South Carroll High School seniors, from left, Ayden Behn, 17; Chase Cote, 18; and Abbie Shorter, 17, hang out together in the senior-designated parking lot at their school. Like all seniors, they are facing uncertain times during the pandemic, without the expected milestones of proms, senior week and graduation ceremonies. May 13, 2020
South Carroll High School seniors, from left, Ayden Behn, 17; Chase Cote, 18; and Abbie Shorter, 17, hang out together in the senior-designated parking lot at their school. Like all seniors, they are facing uncertain times during the pandemic, without the expected milestones of proms, senior week and graduation ceremonies. May 13, 2020 (Amy Davis)

The dissolution of their senior year means this friend group will never get to go to prom or help pull off a senior prank. But more than that, it meant they couldn’t say goodbye when it mattered.

Their classmate, Mount Airy lacrosse player Noah Homayouni, was shot and killed along with a neighbor in early April, just a few weeks into the school closure.

Behn and his friends, Abbie Shorter and Chase Cote, didn’t know Homayouni well, but felt the weight of the loss.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Cote, who will study at Temple University.

“And we couldn’t mourn it properly, which was really hard,” said Shorter, who’s James Madison University-bound.

The three of them have to make sense of that tragedy while juxtaposing it with their feelings about the pandemic.

“It’s that feeling of ‘I didn’t get any closure, and I’m so clueless about what to do next, because there’s no transition into the real world,’ " Behn said. "You’re just thrown into it.”

At the same time, the incoming freshman at the Savannah College of Art and Design said he’s learned to cherish more deeply the time with his friends. They still find time to laugh and tease one another, trading fast quips and inside jokes. They love Ariana Grande and Timothée Chalamet.

If they had known that Friday, March 13, would be their last day at school before college, these seniors say, they would have savored the scenes, paid more attention in class — and doled out more in-person goodbyes.

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