Class of 2020 navigates uncharted territory, canceled milestones amid COVID-19 pandemic
The peach, sequined dress arrived weeks ago, delivered in a box to the house.
She carefully opened the package, lifted out the gown and admired its sequins, the applique flowers.
Seventeen-year-old Lily Harrington tried on the floor-length, backless dress immediately, just to make sure it fit and was perfect for the dance - her senior prom.
After donning the dress, she carefully hung it up so it wouldn't get wrinkled, in her sister Holly's closet since she was away at college and there was more room in there.
Since then, so much has changed.
Her older sister came back from her senior year at Colorado State University and reclaimed the closet. In-person classes were canceled at schools across the state over concerns of spreading COVID-19, which hit the state hard after initial cases at ski resorts from visitors spread to others. Athletics were canceled for the rest of the school year.
Both the girls' plans for their graduations are in limbo. Everything is canceled and they stay at home, connecting with others online or on their phones.
In the weeks since the dress arrived, the world has turned upside down. Everything she planned for is not the way she expected it would turn out. And as a planner, Harrington is one of those kids who has imagined her senior prom for years. She and her friends would get ready together, curl their hair and put on fancy makeup. They would go out together in a group for dinner and take photos up at Inspiration Point on Log Hill Mesa, where they would use the San Juans as a spectacular backdrop for their photos.
Instead, she found herself with a shimmery dress hanging in her sister’s closet. Harrington is finishing her senior year via a computer screen from home, picking up clay for ceramics classes and building art projects alone. She's planning her 18th birthday next week at home, instead of with friends.
Students were originally supposed to return to school in Ridgway on April 17, but things changed quickly as neighboring counties started reporting more cases of coronavirus. As Ouray County still didn’t have widespread testing available, officials relied on the number of cases confirmed in the region to guide them, along with recommendations from state health officials.
Friday, March 13, was the students’ last day at school, and Harrington said it was bizarre.
The school buzzed with talk of an impending closure. Teachers brought out big rolls of garbage bags, distributing them and telling students to clean out their lockers, just in case they couldn't get back into the school.
Harrington and others on the yearbook staff realized this might be their last chance to get photos of classmates for the yearbook, which they were still assembling. They scrambled to get last-minute photos for their feature pages, the classmates voted best-dressed or recognized for their best smiles. They rushed to find photos of celebrity look-alikes for their classmates, grabbing photos of student council and drama club in between cleaning out their lockers and getting last-minute instructions from teachers on the assignments that might have to continue remotely.
They had to cut the girls’ soccer team page from the yearbook. They didn’t have a photo of the team, and the season didn’t even have a chance to start. Just this week, the state organization governing school sports announced high school sports are canceled for the rest of the year, anyway.
Now it's not clear how students will manage to get their classmates to sign those yearbooks they rushed to finish. There's no gathering at lunch and passing pens around, no writing inside jokes on the pages by their photos.
This isn’t how Harrington pictured her senior year ending.
Before this, it felt cool to be part of the class of 2020. It just sounded different, unique, something that seemed monumental.
Now, Harrington and the other 25 members of the senior class at Ridgway High School are in uncharted territory. All the traditions, the things seniors are supposed to do before they graduate, have been postponed or canceled over concerns of contagion. No one can get too close to each other. Even dancing far apart isn’t allowed, if you’re in a group of 10 or more. Mass gatherings have been banned by the governor, and other local public health orders remain in place.
They don’t know how to celebrate in the time of coronavirus.
Down the road at Ouray School, the senior class of 11 students is facing the same dilemma. They sha red a combined prom with the Ridgway students, and are not trying to figure out what they want to do together if the public health orders are lifted, or what they can do remotely if things don’t change before they move on to the next stage in their lives.
Last year, Ouray School senior Makaya Cervone went to prom with her boyfriend, Kai, at Brickhouse 737, where they could order non-alcoholic drinks at the bar and eat ice cream in between dances. She hadn’t decided on a dress yet this year, and she’s glad for that.
Cervone, 17, has attended school in Ouray since preschool, like half of her classmates. She was looking forward to a senior trip with her classmates and teachers, to prom and graduation. There was Senior Ditch Day, when they all skip school and do something fun. At Ouray, it’s a scheduled day, and all the teachers know about it.
Before, she would have relished the idea of a day off from going to school. Now, she wishes she could just see all her classmates and teachers in person.
This year is weird. It’s empty. It’s not the road they thought they were going down. And that’s hard.
Cervone said missing out on these milestones leaves seniors feeling like something is amiss.
“These are monuments in your life,” she said. “It’s not just something little. It’s starting a whole new chapter in our lives, and it’s been taken away from us.”
Cervone plans on attend ing the Makeup Designory in Burbank, California, after graduating, and hopes to work in the entertainment industry after finishing the program. It's something she's still looking forward to, though the details of how or when her program will start remain uncertain.
Harrington plans on studying business marketing and management at CSU after graduating. She’s waiting to hear if she will be placed in housing on campus.
It’s hard to look forward to something amid all the uncertainty, especially when they’ve missed out on those senior milestones.
They know prom isn’t everything, but it was part of something they counted on – the rituals teenagers plan for when they’re younger. They watched the older kids do these things and looked forward to doing them when they got older. And now, that’s gone.
“This is an unprecedented time, and it’s really hard on us seniors who are missing out on these last … rites of passage,” Harrington said. “Most of the adults have been really supportive, but there are also a few that will say other kids ‘way back when’ had it so much worse.”
Harrington and Cervone have seen the posts on social media - the ones where older people post their senior photos in support of the class of 2020. But somehow, that gesture has had the opposite effect of what was intended.
“It makes me really sad because we're seeing literally every other person's photos from their perfect senior year where they got to do everything that we didn’t,” Cervone said.
"I think it definitely emphasizes the fact that our senior year isn't like theirs," Harrington said. "I think it kind of shows that some of them don't really understand why missing out on these final months really hurts for us seniors."
It’s not that Harrington doesn’t count her blessings. She understands why people are isolating, why the stay-at-home orders are in place. She has a friend with asthma she worries about, and she doesn’t want anyone she loves to get sick.
“We know that we’re really lucky to live in the time that we do — especially here in Ridgway and Ouray in this beautiful place that we do – but it’s still hard,” she said.
Now, everything is up in the air. The only thing that’s certain is uncertainty. She’s wondering what graduation will look like, or if there will be a graduation ceremony at all.
She and other students hope there will be a chance for a 2020 prom, eventually. She doesn’t mind if the milestones happen out of order, with prom happening months after she graduates.
After all, she knows the dress will be there, waiting.