Education

At sunrise on Thursday, dozens of duPont Manual High School seniors were gathered in the bleachers at the school’s football stadium, eating Pop-Tarts and watching the fog lift from the field where hundreds of white folding chairs were arranged in rows. It was the last day of school for students in Jefferson County Public Schools, and for these students, the last day of their K-12 career. They were at the field to practice graduation before Friday’s ceremony.

“It just, like, popped out of nowhere,” senior El Stephens said, waiting on the track for his friends to arrive. “I don’t think it’s gonna hit me for like a week.”

Senior years tend to go by quickly, but for these seniors, perhaps even more so. Out of the entire 2020-2021 school year, high school students had less than eight weeks of in-person classes. The year started remote as the coronavirus spread across Jefferson County. High school students didn’t have the option to return to in-person classes until April 5, after spring break. 

“Those few weeks just went by like that!” Stephens’ friend and classmate Asha Peoples said, snapping his fingers. “We didn’t really have the time to do what we wanted to do.”

Manual High School student Asha Peoples shows off his senior class T-shirt.Jess Clark | wfpl.org

Manual High School student Asha Peoples shows off his senior class T-shirt.

Prom, homecoming, spirit week—seniors didn’t get to have these milestones, at least not in the way they always imagined they would.

“Freshman year you had this, like…idea of like: senior year is going to be the best year, “Simone Oliver said. ”We got a lot of things taken away from us.”

Oliver is in the Youth Performing Arts School (YPAS) dance program at Manual. Normally seniors spend the entire year developing an end-of-year performance, creating their own choreography, lighting and costumes. This year’s concert was much shorter and simpler.

Oliver was among many seniors Thursday morning who said if they learned one big thing from living through a pandemic in their last year of high school, it’s not to take anything for granted.

“It can be gone in a second,” Oliver said.

“I know it’s pretty cliché,” Re’anna Calloway said, “but it’s like, you don’t really realize the stuff that you have and stuff you can do until one day, it’s like, you can’t do it anymore. And suddenly, everything’s gone, and everything’s changed.”

Manual High School senior Re'anna Calloway got to the football stadium at sunrise for a practice graduation ceremony.Jess Clark | wfpl.org

Manual High School senior Re’anna Calloway got to the football stadium at sunrise for a practice graduation ceremony.

The big thing Peter Ritchie said he missed: “senior soakers,” a Manual tradition in which participating seniors draw names and then ambush each other with water guns.

“I think school is like the one place you can’t do it, but, like, after school, it’s like a war zone. Like, all around the city it’s fair game,” he said wistfully.

There are things students didn’t miss. For example, they didn’t have their normal final exams. Some got extra sleep, or had more flexibility to work and make money.

Matthew Schaaf said he thinks some of his classmates have learned to be more aware of their mental health and become comfortable being alone sometimes.

“I think it’s important to be able to spend time with yourself and, like, be OK with that, instead of just always with other people…just be able to sit with your thoughts and not go crazy,” he said.

Meanwhile, Destiny Williamson said her takeaway is to seize as many opportunities for connection as possible.

“If you’re second guessing going to, like, a football game or a homecoming dance, just do it to make memories,” she said, “because you never know when you won’t be able to participate in those type of things.”

Manual High School students and friends Simone Oliver (left), Nile Rowe and Destiny Calloway.Jess Clark | wfpl.org

Manual High School students and friends Simone Oliver (left), Nile Rowe and Destiny Williamson.

Williamson and her classmates graduate Friday, weather permitting. JCPS high schools are holding graduation ceremonies over the next several days at football stadiums across the district.

To maintain social distancing, some graduations have been broken into as many as five different ceremonies.

The class of 2020, which held graduation ceremonies virtually last spring, will also finally have a chance to hold in-person ceremonies. Those ceremonies will take place at football stadiums over the next several days as well.

Lily Burris contributed to this report.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.