Mollie Bishop bought her prom dress in January.
The Hixson High School senior has attended her school’s prom before, but this year’s was going to be special. She’s had her bright pink dress for months, already picked out her shoes and jewelry and even knew how she wanted to do her hair.
“I’ve been ready for prom since mid-February. I got my dress altered, I have my shoes, I have my earrings. I knew what I was doing with my hair,” Bishop said. “Prom could be tomorrow, and I know I could be ready.”
After being sidelined by injuries his sophomore and junior year, Colby Davis returned to the baseball diamond for one last time this spring. He was excited to play as a senior at Ooltewah High School, excited for one last season of fellowship and brotherhood with his teammates.
But he’s only gotten to play a few games this year.
Jeremiah Tarvin wants to attend Tennessee Tech University. He’s earned all A grades so far this year, but his ACT score needs improvement, he said.
Tarvin has been attending the Howard School’s Saturday Success Academy for ACT preparation, but when the Hamilton County Schools system closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the extra Saturday help sessions stopped, too.
More than 3,000 high school seniors graduate from Hamilton County Schools every year.
Students are now slated to return to class on April 27, but the district has already officially postponed commencement ceremonies originally scheduled for mid-May — so many seniors aren’t sure what the last weeks of high school will hold for them.
Most are sure though, it definitely hasn’t been what they expected.
Olivia Stewart is the senior class president at East Hamilton School. Last week, she and a few friends went to campus to paint the school’s “spirit rock,” which was the 2017 senior class gift to the school.
The members of the class of 2020 aren’t sure what they will be able to coordinate through Zoom calls for a senior gift this year. They aren’t sure if they will have their senior awards night, prom or a virtual graduation ceremony.
“I think the biggest thing just for our class in general is we are scared of missing out on the milestones,” Stewart said.
Stewart said the school’s administration has been extremely supportive since students were sent home on March 13, and she knows they are trying to make this year special for seniors.
But part of Stewart is still wary.
“We could’ve attended our last day of high school and not have known it,” she said.
Most teachers and administrations are empathetic — they know how special senior year is for many students.
Lindsay Donohue, the senior class sponsor at East Hamilton, said in an email that she has been “heartsick” for seniors.
Taylor Flynn, an English teacher at Ooltewah High School, said her seniors have been understanding and adaptable — they are still completing their classwork at home and bragging about taking on extra work while schools are closed. But reality is starting to set in, too.
“They’ve been very resilient and accepting of everything that’s been thrown at them,” Flynn said. “And the kids I never expected to say this are asking, ‘When can we come back to school?'”
“Some of our kids will be the first ones in their family to graduate high school and some of them won’t be going to college, so this will be the only graduation they’ll have,” Flynn added. “The reality of maybe not getting that recognition on that level is starting to sink in.”
Elizabeth Diamond is already used to a non-traditional school schedule and spending her days on a college campus. As a senior at Chattanooga’s STEM School on Chattanooga State Community College’s campus, she’s been used to taking dual enrollment courses and even being able to participate in some of Chattanooga State’s extracurricular activities.
Diamond said she’s experienced “a wave of emotions” since she’s been home while schools are closed. Most days it’s just her and her family’s cats, Styx and G.G., while the rest of the family go to work at their essential jobs.
“My friends and I have been keeping up with each other on the internet,” Diamond said. “Staying at home isn’t good for my mental health, though, because I’m just here with my thoughts.”
Like most educators and students who have been completing assignments and lessons, Diamond has had video conferences via Zoom with friends and classmates and is completing school work online. But she hasn’t been able to take part in some of the hands-on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) opportunities that her school is known for.
She also has never gone to prom — she waited until her senior year to go, and she and her girlfriend already had their outfits picked out.
Now she even wonders what they’ll do for graduation. One of her friends joked that they should all get into their cars and hold a graduation parade to celebrate.
Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson sent a letter home to seniors this week explaining the district’s reasoning for postponing graduation in light of the current coronavirus pandemic.
The district has put together a committee to explore alternative dates and locations for graduations and proms and is working with the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Committee to come up with ideas — even if schools don’t reopen at all this academic year.
Johnson said individual schools might hold special school-specific events to carry on their traditions, but the district will not allow some schools to host prom or graduation and others not to.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has created many hurdles for us all, and we know our seniors are uniquely impacted. The second semester of a student’s senior year is a time all students look forward to, and our hearts are heavy over the loss of those special moments and experiences for the Class of 2020,” Johnson said.
He also marveled at how resilient this class of seniors has been — the same children who were born shortly after Sept. 11, 2011, and have lived through wars and economic recessions.
“How resilient they’ve been and the character they’ve shown through difficult moments is really an inspiration for us. It’s really showing our community, our state and our nation how to respond to adversity,” Johnson told the Times Free Press. “They are examples.”
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Though he misses school, Tarvin is trying to be productive while he’s stuck at home with his stepmother, great-aunt and nieces under Tennessee’s stay-at-home order.
“I was so used to spending half my day at school; it’s different being at home all day, it’s boring,” Tarvin joked.
In addition to the assignments and classwork he has to complete, Tarvin is also filling out scholarship applications, writing essays and preparing to re-take the ACT. He had been attending Howard’s additional leaning time opportunities on Saturdays to prepare for the ACT but the sessions were canceled when schools were closed.
His ACT test date was also pushed back from April to May, and he’s concerned it will affect his college applications.
His sister bought him an ACT practice book and he’s going through the sections, he said — starting with science. But like his chemistry classwork, sometimes he feels he could use more hands-on help from his teachers.
He is also disappointed about the plans he had made for graduation. Family members were going to come to Chattanooga from other states, and he was planning to rent out a venue to hold a party.
Now he doesn’t know if his older sister will be able to visit from Houston or what the district will decide regarding graduation.
“I made a lot of plans for around that time, so canceling graduation would ruin a lot of things,” he said.
Colby Davis, a senior at Ooltewah High, is worried that the highlight of his senior year is already ruined — baseball season.
Though the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA) is working to ensuring student athletes can finish their season this spring, nothing has been finalized.
“We’re hoping and expecting we are going to come back, but in the back of your head, you start to lose hope a little bit,” Davis said.
The third baseman got injured during his freshman and sophomore years and didn’t play junior year. But he came back to the team for his final year in high school — and ended up only getting to play a few games.
“With senior year coming around, I missed being around all the guys, missed the sport. … I got to play two or three games and then all of this stuff with the coronavirus happened and now I can’t play the season I came back for,” Davis said.
He doesn’t begrudge schools from closing, though. The aspiring future pastor is glad the district is making the best decisions to keep everyone healthy and safe.
“Whenever I feel like this season, this time in my life is being taken away from me … I think that [the Lord] works everything for his good,” Davis said. “Just wait for its time and it will all come back in your favor. This season of our lives is just going to make us stronger and make us better people.”
Contact Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.
Hamilton County high school seniors’ year interrupted by coronavirus