A global pandemic was once something we had only seen in science fiction movies, yet the last few months have seen one sweep across the world. Communities have essentially shut down, schools and businesses have closed, families are quarantined together across the globe with no near end in sight. Streets once bustling with people are empty, and protests are breaking out across the United States. Everyone has been impacted by the horror that is COVID-19. As high school seniors, we can tell you that we certainly have been.

Finally reaching the culminating part of their high school career, this year’s seniors—us included—had just rounded the climax of senior year. Just as students began to hear back from colleges and finalize post-graduation plans, life was suddenly turned upside down. Instead of celebrating four years of hard work with prom, graduation parties and the graduation ceremony itself, many students instead found themselves at home, a random Thursday in March signifying their last day of high school.

Instead of enjoying our last weeks in the warm spring weather, laughing in the hallways between classes and savoring the time we had left, this year’s seniors are stuck at home, separated from their friends and spending time cramming for exams over Zoom. What was supposed to be a happy ending has turned into an endless stream of anxiety, stress and grief for what was to come, and what was lost.

Beyond the certain loss of our senior year lies the uncertain future of our freshman year of college. The stress of choosing a college online is overwhelming. With campuses closed, students simply can’t get a true feel for their schools. As one of the most important decisions we have ever had to make, the stress is only heightened when the choice must be based on internet threads, Zoom calls and the text on college websites.

Beyond the choice itself, the reality of the fall semester remains unknown. With colleges still trying to work out their plans for the fall, many schools are preparing for online or restricted on-campus learning. For the Class of 2020, the potential of not only a ruined senior year but also freshman year is a scary reality.

A recent study found that nearly one in six high school seniors are considering taking a gap year, one of us included.

Colin Kerrigan, a graduating senior and Jookender participant, voices his consideration: “I think that if my school, UT Austin, plans for an online semester, I’ll have to really think hard about a gap year.”

For students like Colin, the potential of an online or restricted semester is simply not worth the price tag. Fortunately, plenty of opportunities exist to ensure these students have an enriching year. Between volunteering for a variety of organizations, participating in internships (like the Jookender Social Entrepreneurship Program) or even applying to gap year programs like the Tivnu Social Justice Program, students who choose to delay their college education as a result of COVID-19 have the opportunity to make the most of a year off. 

The majority of students are, however, either unwilling or unable to delay their college education. These seniors still find themselves facing many questions in regard to their freshman year. Some would prefer the safety of online courses, rather than a half-fledged experience on campus; others, the opposite.

Kira Shandalov, one member of the Jookender Social Entrepreneurship Program, finds online learning an underwhelming experience: “I think it’s a great way to keep up with school and to keep students somewhat in the same routine, but I find it to be harder than physical learning.”

And yet, despite the downsides, she still views the safety of online classes as a better alternative to a campus filled with masks, small classes, no roommate, and other COVID-19 specific restrictions. “If we’re not allowed to live as usual, that means we’re still exposed to the virus, which makes online classes safer than on-campus learning,” she said.

Other students remain unworried. Eyal Jackman, another member of the Jookender Social Entrepreneurship Program, voiced his thoughts on the prospect of a lackluster first semester at UMass Amherst: “I don’t care that much for the first semester. We will be in dorms eventually.”

While each student bears the brunt of this uncertainty differently, the one thing that nearly every graduating senior can agree on is that their experience is, and will forever be, different from anything they imagined.

So, what can you do as a parent or friend to a graduating senior? Unfortunately, not much is in any of our control. Nobody can make this disease evaporate and return life back to normal, and nobody can wave a magic wand and bring back all the time that was lost. The only thing you can do is be there to support seniors.

You can purchase or create a yard sign that displays that someone in your household, or someone you know, is graduating; in this way, seniors can get recognition for their accomplishments in some form. You can work to make these moments as special as they can be, so it doesn’t seem like time was lost—it simply was spent differently than initially expected. You can try to be understanding of the senior; if they happen to be slacking off in school or going through mood swings, it’s likely a result of the disappointment and loss they are feeling as they attempt to acclimate to this new way of life and accept what has changed. 

Teachers can reach out to their students, congratulating them for their accomplishments and checking in on how they’re doing during these crazy times to show they care. At our own school, our teachers sent a video of compiled images containing signs that told us how much they missed us and were thinking of us, which was wonderful to watch.

With this pandemic, nobody has control over anything. All we can do is band together as a community (socially distanced, of course) and be there for one another during these tumultuous times.

Arthur Andreev and Lauren Silva are high school seniors and members of Jookender teen programs.

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