Celebrating our Class of 2020: Can seniors deal with the distance?

By Magdalena Saliba

Coping with the loss of senior year has been a struggle for the entire class of 2020. While many of us were starting to feel the pressure of senioritis back in late February, we never expected to long for pencil-tapping on wooden desks or reminders to sign up for enrichment. COVID-19 has caused school closures across the country and thus the cancellation of important events like graduation, prom, and at Payton, simple things like the senior clap-out. Of course, school closures have created many long-term, unknown variables for Payton’s seniors. Will we ever have a proper graduation ceremony? Is prom even a possibility? What about one last chance to hug our classmates goodbye before we are pushed off to college, internships, jobs, and our futures? 

There are no easy answers as many of these questions lay in the hands of Governor Priztker, Mayor Lightfoot, and even the business owners that make it possible for the events to take place. At Payton, Mr. Chau and Mr. Adamji have been working closely with a large group of concerned parents and student volunteers, along with advisors and other faculty members, to make sure seniors receive the proper closure they deserve. 

A senior town-hall was conducted on April 29, inviting over 200 advisors, parents, and students to share their ideas about the future of senior celebratory events. While this event did bring in a flood of unrealistic, and quite fantastical, ways of possibly holding a graduation ceremony, it also did help formulate a list of very creative ways the ceremony could take place. Administration’s and Mr. Chau’s idea of holding a virtual graduation received mixed reviews during the session, most voicing the opinion that this form of ceremony would not be enough to celebrate the accomplishments of the Class of 2020.

Senior Jenna Barac does not believe a virtual graduation is sufficient: “I worked hard for four years, as did all of my fellow classmates, and it just seems like kind of an insufficient way to commemorate all of our work we put into high school.”

This opinion is one that has been voiced many times in the senior group chat, which is a forum that consists of almost every senior in the class of 2020 and allows them to discuss these senior events freely. Most agree with Barac, a virtual graduation is no way to celebrate the years of work that it took to not only complete high school, but also make it into such a competitive school as Payton. Another crucial factor, voiced by the student body, in considering why a virtual graduation isn’t enough is the fact that students are either the first in their family to ever graduate from high school in the US or the first to graduate from high school at all. Taking away the opportunity to walk across a stage would be a heartbreaking and unfair way to force students and their families to experience the ceremony for the first time. 

“A lot of seniors would rather wait and have the real, in-person graduation. That’s an experience you can’t have virtually. You can’t really do it if you’re not together,” Barac says. 

But fear not, the possibility of having an in-person graduation is not off the table. On Friday, May 8, an update sent to students and parents of the senior class spoke about a new form of graduation in which advisories would be invited to the auditorium for a small ceremony. This entails that families would not be allowed in the building, and graduates would be spaced out in the auditorium. Of course, this cannot happen unless the number of people allowed to gather is raised from 10 to 50 people, and it must be approved by CPS. As of now, CPS has a rule that prohibits any in-person gathering to celebrate graduation. Even a drive-thru option is not allowed.

No matter what the outcome, the administration and Mr.Chau ensured that they will work their hardest to make a real, whole-grade ceremony happen, whether that is in late July, over winter break, or even next summer. Most seniors in the grade group chat agreed that they would be willing to return to Payton, or some other nice venue, for a graduation/prom reunion. Some believe that if it doesn’t happen this year, there is no point, but the majority of students seem to have strong desires towards the ability to gather altogether, no matter when it may be. 

Another large force in creating a conversation around these celebrations has been the Senior Steering Committee (SSC), led by Mr. Chau. This group exists to help Mr. Chau plan events like the senior potluck, design products like the senior shirt, and fundraise for prom tickets. This year, the group has faced new challenges that require them to step up in ways that were unimaginable just a few months ago, but they are working hard to make comforting plans for the senior class.

These 10 students participated in a digital meeting on May 5 to help voice the opinions of seniors in terms of how we can move forward as a community and make this hard time a little more celebratory for the graduates. The opinions shared against the idea of virtual graduation may have been the driving force in administration working harder to create the advisory option, as the SSC was clear that few students liked the virtual option. Instead, a commemorative video may be created featuring the speeches and photos of graduates at the small ceremony. Since the advisory graduation may not occur, there is a lot of ambiguity in terms of what will happen with the ceremony.

Though nothing is set, glimpses of hope are offered as event spaces like Galleria Marchetti, the location of the senior luncheon, reschedule tentative dates that are dependent on the lifting of the stay-at-home order. Conversations about prom still float between the inboxes of concerned parents and administration, even though the future of the event space, The Drake, is not clear. 

In terms of smaller ways to celebrate the class of 2020, the SSC is collaborating with parents on goodies, like possible yard signs, to give to the class. Some ideas for goodies that were shared in the Senior Town Hall include Payton clothing, a water bottle, or even a “Class of 2020” face mask. All of these ideas really depend on the involvement of Payton vendors, donors, and the overall cost of the items, but the Town Hall managed to make these seem possible. 

While many of the larger events cannot be replicated by students remotely, the class has banded together to brainstorm ways to celebrate smaller events and stay connected from home. Though the topic of decision day is often hotly debated, and it must be noted that many schools pushed back their decision days to June 1, many college gear-clad seniors participated in Zoom calls to celebrate each other’s accomplishments. Many students from all different CPS schools even met up in large parks and fields, maintaining six feet distance from each other, to celebrate May 1. A student-run “time capsule” Instagram account (@wpcp2020timecapsule) was even created to celebrate post-high school accomplishments and plans, as well as point out the favorite clubs and teachers of the students. Other events, such as the senior prank, are still in discussion. While many of these events cannot happen in person, the grade has managed to attempt to grow closer and build bonds, despite the distance. 

The future of events for the seniors seems positive right now, although nothing is concrete. Despite all the uncertainty, Payton’s team of devoted teachers, administration, parents, and students will not let the class of 2020 down when celebrating their accomplishments. These times are not ideal for anyone, but the most important lesson that teachers instill in the seniors, especially before the large life shift of college and beyond, is that we are a community at Payton and nothing, not even a pandemic, will keep us from celebrating each other.

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