For seniors, a memorable finale cut short

Prospect of premature end of school year ‘heartbreaking’

Forest Hills Central senior Meredith Vanskiver says she would love to return to school ‘even for a day’ (courtesy)

For high school seniors, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown their long-awaited end-of-K-12 plans into turmoil. Graduation ceremonies, yard parties, proms, senior trips: All are off for the moment due to the statewide school closure and stay-at-home order.

Although Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has said she’ll “ensure our seniors graduate,” she’s also said it’s “very unlikely” schools will reopen this spring. And new reporting by Bridge magazine says Whitmer will shortly announce schools will close for the remainder of the school year but that seniors will indeed graduate.

Still, it’s an open question whether students will be able to participate in traditional commencement ceremonies due to the current state mandate prohibiting large gatherings and requiring social distancing. And if schools do not reopen, for seniors there will be none of the time-honored, end-of-year traditions, whether formal proms with their gowns and tuxes or memorable trips filled with fun and selfies.   

Senior Lorynn Cotts was looking forward to a final tennis season

We asked a few area students to reflect on how they’re handling the abrupt disruption of their long-anticipated final year in school. In interviews before reports of Whitmer’s intentions, they spoke poignantly of their desire to return to school and toss their graduation caps in the air. 

Byron Center

Byron Center High School senior Lorynn Cotts was looking forward to the last quarter of her senior year — finishing up classes, playing a final season of varsity tennis, going on Spring Break to Mexico, attending prom and, finally, graduation.

An involved student, she has put her heart and soul into school and extracurriculars National Honor Society and student government.

While she sees the big picture of staying home to slow the spread of the virus, it’s hard. “There’s definitely disappointment, for sure, but also there’s not a ton you can do,” she said. “It’s not in our control so I’m just making the most of it.”

Her father, Randy Cotts, is a Byron Center High School history teacher, and she has two older siblings. High school milestones are a big deal for the family.

“I’ve grown up in the high school and I’ve seen my brother and sister graduate, do the whole last day of school walk through the halls and all that. Thinking about me not being able to do those things is super sad,” she said. “There’s really nothing I can do about, just keep a positive attitude.”

‘Thinking that the last time I was at school could possibly have been my last day is heartbreaking.’

— Lorynn Cotts, Byron Center High School
Senior Lorynn Cotts does school work from home

Lorynn was planning a grand Spring Break finale with six friends in Riviera Maya, Mexico, but she knows that’s something to save for later. “We know we can reschedule those things. We are just trying to get through this time and hopefully get back to school at some point.”

Lorynn’s been spending time outside playing tennis and working out and doing school work. Plus, “I’m constantly checking my emails.” She continues to work on Advanced Placement classes through the College Board, and is waiting for guidance on everything that needs to be finished for graduation. She was hopeful prom would still happen.

Lorynn plans to attend Michigan State University in the fall and major in kinesiology or nursing.

She’s more interested in the nursing field than ever.  

“I like seeing that this is going to probably be my future job and I will be able to help in these kinds of situations.”

She misses her teachers and an organized class schedule. She wasn’t ready for high school to end.

“I definitely miss seeing my friends, just being at school. Thinking that the last time I was at school could possibly have been my last day is heartbreaking.”

Forest Hills

Forest Hills Central senior Meredith Vanskiver is spending the extended school closure at home with her parents and her two sisters, one 16 and another who is days from her 12th birthday.

Mom Kelly is a counselor in the district, so there’s structure. “She makes sure we all are up at 8:30 every day, and that we go to what she calls Vanskiver Public Schools,” Meredith said with a laugh. “We usually take a couple hours to get schoolwork done, then do something as a family like take a walk or do a puzzle. Other than that, it’s a lot of aimless free time.”

‘I would love to go back to school, like, even for a day.’

— Meredith Vanskiver, Forest Hills Central
Clockwise from Mom: Kelly and Jeff Vanskiver, dog Copper, and daughters Ruthie, Audrey, and Meredith

At school, Meredith is a theater student and one of two public relations managers for online student news site, The Central Trend. She also is student council president, so has a lot of social connections.

“I would really like for school to happen again,” she said. “It really just felt like there was no final moment at all. On Thursday it was ‘see you tomorrow,’ then suddenly it wasn’t,” she added, referring to the March 13 statewide school shutdown.

“I would love to go back to school, like, even for a day. I’m worried they’re going to cancel the rest of the year, and I’d just really like some closure.”

For now, she said, she and her siblings understand the gravity of what they are doing by staying at home.

“We watch the news together pretty much every day, we watched the governor’s town hall, we talk about it. We’re definitely a little nervous. It’s not like we’re preparing for doomsday, but we are being very cautious and we talk about the rules we have every day.”

Slowly, she said last Friday, she has “started to reframe my thoughts: summer’s not canceled. School’s not canceled. I take everything day by day.”

And she does think there are some benefits for her and her peers. “I had a Zoom meeting yesterday for a prayer group at school,” she said, “and we talked about how this is showing us we can stay connected even if we are apart, like we are going to be for college next year. This is a mini-trial. We’re all getting to see that we can still stay connected.”

‘The more seriously we take this, the quicker it will be over.

— Tommy Hendricks, Forest Hills Central
Forest Hills Central senior Tommy Hendricks (courtesy)

Meredith’s classmate Tommy Hendricks is self-quarantining at home with his parents, a brother back from college, and his sister, a freshman.

“We’re getting kind of sick of being in close quarters all the time,” he admitted. But he speaks with the calm authority of the senior class president that he is, that this time of boredom and not seeing his friends is “absolutely worth it.”

“The more seriously we take this,” Tommy said, “the quicker it will be over.

And he definitely wants that. His grandfather recently had cancer surgery but can have no visitors. Tommy’s girlfriend typically works at a retirement home, and nobody is allowed to visit those residents.

He works part-time at a local barbecue restaurant, but hasn’t gone in for nearly two weeks — which he doesn’t mind. He said he wasn’t getting many hours before the crisis, but has friends who are “on a balancing beam between trying to stay healthy and safe and (to be) financially stable.”

He’s hearing a lot from peers who are upset about events being canceled, and he gets that. For him it means no crew practice, no wrestling team banquet, possibly no prom and especially no what he calls “the big hurrah” for him and his fellow high school musicians: the state level of solo ensemble. He said he really feels for those at school who play spring sports.

“I’ve been trying to remind everyone that the focus should always be on the process rather than the final product,” he said. “I was pretty upset for about a day. I quickly realized I don’t play to perform, I play because I love it.”

And he has time to focus on things he can do, one of which is student council activities. Every season the school holds fun-spirited grade-level competitions. They’re currently having a Google classroom contest, organized with Meredith and the rest of the student council.

“Whichever class has the most signed up is the winner,” he explained. “It’s not as fun as a tug-of-war, but it’s something.”

Grand Rapids 

Karla Lopez thought she was all set. She was finishing up her credits online at Grand Rapids University Preparatory Academy, and was ready to enroll in Grand Rapids Community College with a Promise Scholarship providing two years of full tuition, books and fees. She looked forward to graduating with her classmates in May and being the first in her family to attend college.

Now she wonders if that graduation ceremony will even happen.

“From the beginning, I always kept my hopes up,” Karla said. “I knew we were going to have a graduation.” But then she began seeing “really negative thoughts all over social media,” posted by students who feared their ceremonies wouldn’t happen. “Sometimes it gets to me,” Karla said. “It’s like, wow, we might not be able to walk across the stage.”

‘As long as we get to walk across that stage, I think that’s what we’re all looking for.’

— Karla Lopez, Grand Rapids University Preparatory Academy
Karla Lopez is determined to finish her credits to graduate and be the first in her family to attend college

But she didn’t get this far by giving in to negative thoughts. Having helped her single mother survive a bout with cancer, and missing lots of school last fall due to a stomach ailment, Karla doesn’t intend to let the coronavirus deny her the education she’s worked so hard for.

Despite feeling “stressed and weird about this whole situation,” she said, “I’ll still work on my online classes to finish, and see what will happen with school. I’ll continue doing my work, and at least get myself distracted.”

She received a phone call from her assistant principal, Jessalynn Radden, encouraging her to complete her two courses and hope for the best. Karla’s doing just that, and plans to take the placement test for GRCC.

She’s also following the mandates of the stay-at-home order, which she says has brought her family “a lot closer.”

“Before it was just coming home, getting our homework done and eating and getting ready for bed,” said Karla, who has a younger sister. “Now we actually spend time with each other and we get to talk about stuff.”

She’s sorry to miss out on year-end senior activities, such as the senior trip, spending an all-nighter in school and a group class picture. She was on a chat group organizing the “senior prank,” which might have involved covering everything in Principal Kenyatta Hill’s office with wrapping paper. “We were really looking forward to that,” she said with a soft chuckle.

But she’ll gladly give all that up for a proper graduation, even if it has to be held in the summer.

“As long as we get to walk across that stage,” she said, “I think that’s what we’re all looking for.”

Lowell

Lowell High School senior Natasha Marsh was sitting on her bed while talking with a reporter for this article. It’s “one of the only quiet places in the house,” she explained. She’s at home with her parents and three younger siblings.

‘I feel like I worked really hard to get to this point, only to have it cut off.’

— Natasha Marsh, Lowell High School
Lowell High School senior Natasha Marsh with her Scholastic Art Competition Gold Key award and artwork
(courtesy)

Natasha said she already has enough credits to graduate, so schoolwork isn’t a concern. But she’s really missing varsity soccer, Olivia Miller’s art class, her fellow student council members, and those with whom she recently formed the school’s first activist service group for girls, about which she’s “kind of sad that (it) never got off the ground.”

What uncertainty concerns her most right now: “I understand we will graduate, we will get that diploma, but I’m worried it’s going to be a PDF, that we won’t get to walk across that stage. Then there’s prom, the senior overnighter, the end of the year is where things kind of get fun. I feel like I worked really hard to get to this point, only to have it cut off.

“All of the beautiful, little things about going to school — seeing my teachers and friends, and playing soccer every day — are over. This feeling of nostalgia was something I was expecting to feel, just not this soon.”

She had just learned via email that she was accepted at her first-choice college, Brown University, where she plans to explore its open curriculum before settling on a major.

Lowell High School senior Natasha Marsh (courtesy)

Her family is seeing and reading about the scope of the pandemic, she said, as everyone is on some form of connected technology.

“We definitely are starting to have those conversations as a family,” she said, and only go to the grocery store “when we absolutely need to. It’s hard for my little brother to understand that we can’t go to the store when we run out of chocolate.”

What’s she optimistic about? “Seeing everybody again,” Natasha said. “Even if things get postponed, it’s not like we’re not going to have something to mark the end of our senior year. And the efforts we are putting in place now, we won’t have to keep doing this forever.”

Northview

Northview High senior Alina Pawl-Castanon is sheltering in place with her best friend and that friend’s family. Alina said she is thankful to not have to be concerned about food and a place to sleep, but is tired nonetheless.

“Just being stuck in one place is just so mentally exhausting,” Alina said. “I’m the type of person that needs to have interaction with other people. Being secluded in one area for so long is so hard.”

‘Everything is so up in the air right now, and it’s impossible to know much of anything for sure.’

— Alina Pawl-Castanon, Northview High School
Alina Pawl-Castanon, Northview High senior, planned to wear her grandmother’s 1980s-era prom dress to prom this year. She recently tried it on for fun (courtesy)

She can’t practice her No. 1 passion: photographing the local music scene. She said she mourns “losing that sense of community because of the dire situation we are in.”

Postponed is her April 25 appointment to tour Columbia College, where she has been accepted and plans to pursue a career in journalism. She’s concerned anyway about required service hours to graduate from high school, which she planned to satisfy by photographing a still-up-in-the-air spring fashion show at school.

In the past week, her shifts at a local take-out joint have been called off three times less than an hour before her shift was to begin. “I understand they are trying to cut down on labor, to make sure people who need the money for rent and groceries get those shifts first,” she said. “I’m not upset, just a little discouraged.”

That’s mostly because paying for college is up to her, she said. “There’s a lot of deadlines. I just made a $250 tuition down payment, and I have to make a $500 dorm room down payment in the next couple of months. With no income, it’s hard to plan ahead. Money is definitely a worry.”

Nonetheless, Alina spends her days hammering away on college essays, and said two of her teachers have sent optional, supplemental learning opportunities.

For now, it’s the uncertainty about a graduation ceremony she mourns most.

“When it comes to those things, it’s pretty disappointing and anxiety- inducing to think about. Everything is so up in the air right now, and it’s impossible to know much of anything for sure. Not being able to have those last experiences like graduation, that last time students are able to be together to recognize their achievements and hard work, it’s pretty disappointing.”

Alina Pawl-Castanon, Northview High senior, takes photos as part of a School News Network job shadow at East Oakview Elementary in November
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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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