PATERSON, NJ – The Class of 2020 is having a senior year like no other.

At high schools, the last few months of the school year are typically filled with many milestones, such as prom and senior trips, that culminate in the final rite of passage in June – graduation.

But, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, those coming-of-age traditions remain in limbo as K-12 schools remain closed as part of an overall effort to combat the spread of the virus. 

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Gov. Phil Murphy recently announced schools will remain shut until at least May 15 and remote learning will continue for the state’s 1.4 million students as the battle against the outbreak wears on. The governor also signed an executive order that waives testing requirements for 8th and 12th graders, easing the way for 13,000 seniors to graduate. On Saturday Murphy hinted that he’d provide an update at his Monday briefing.

With their senior year upended, many students feel sad over potentially missing out on celebrating the conclusion of their high school careers. 

In Paterson, it’s especially hard for students.

“Not having a graduation ceremony, especially in Paterson, is one of the most heartbreaking things that can happen. Myself, as well as many other seniors will be first-generation college students or first-generation high school graduates,” said Rosa Parks High School senior Jennifer Guizar.

Many districts are undecided – or have set a later date for graduation, while others have come up with alternatives to give seniors a send-off.

Some of those back-up plans include: a students-only ceremony with graduates spread 6-feet apart that is live-streamed and a drive-thru ceremony, so families can celebrate inside their cars when their graduate receives a diploma. Proms have also been rescheduled in some places for the summer.

While Paterson school officials have not yet revealed any contingency plans as they relate to these milestones, they will be a topic of discussion when Superintendent Eileen Shafer holds a series of online forums with the impacted students the week of May 11.

“Students like Jennifer have every right to feel disappointed and frustrated about the impact COVID-19 has had on their senior year,” Shafer said. “But we cannot allow disappointment to have a more permanent impact on the future of our seniors.” 

Guizar said if holding senior prom and commencement activities aren’t possible next month, she’d like to have a graduation ceremony, “later on, such as in August.”

“Many of us come from disadvantaged households and have struggled throughout high school way before the pandemic,” she said. “A typical day for me would be going to school from 7:30 a.m. to 3:10 p.m., take a 30-minute bus ride to my job in Wayne, get home by 11 p.m., and do my homework. On days where I didn’t have to go to work, I’d work on school fundraising events or volunteer at NJCDC with the Paterson Youth Council,” she said. “That’s the reality of many high school seniors who more than likely will not have a graduation ceremony and get to celebrate their hard work paying off.”

Next fall, Guizar plans to attend Barnard College of Columbia University, where she’ll be on a pre-law track, studying political science and human rights. At her high school, her classmates have created an unofficial Class of 2020 page, where they are posting future plans as a way to say goodbye to one another.

In Paterson, the district has been working to improve the overall performance of its test scores, absenteeism and graduation rates in recent years. As of 2019, 79.2 percent of Paterson students graduated, according to the state Department of Education. A decade ago, only 50 percent finished high school.

It’s a continued focus on academics that Shafer hopes for students. “I really want students to understand the importance of finishing strong during the fourth marking period,” she said.

In a community filled with low-income and minority households, many of which have limited access to technology and nutritious food, the district has tried to make the transition to remote learning over the past month less challenging for families, including by working to distribute Chromebook laptop computers to as many students as resources will allow for. 

“Remote learning is quite difficult because for my more advanced classes, the work is difficult to manage without having the support of a teacher. In addition to that meeting virtually sometimes causes technical difficulties that force me to be left out of sessions,” Guizar said. 

“However, I do enjoy having more time to do my classwork rather than having an assignment due at 3 p.m. it’s now due at 11:59 p.m.,” she said. “What I miss the most about being in school are my friends, classmates, and teachers. We were all looking forward to making our last year together the best but unfortunately, our time was cut short.”

Shani Gerald, a senior at Manchester Regional High School in nearby Haledon, said, “I’ve honestly come to terms that we most likely won’t have a prom or graduation. However, I do hope they find a way to acknowledge us in some special way.”

Gerald, who plays basketball for her school as well as with the Paterson-based New Jersey Sparks, will take the court again next year at Rutgers-Newark, where she’ll be playing basketball and studying medical imaging sciences. 

Remote learning is overwhelming. Learning at home and teaching yourself isn’t the same as having a classroom experience,” Gerald said. “I do enjoy being able to do work from my bed though. I miss being around my friends, group projects, and having something more productive to do every day.”

Despite the challenges few, if any were prepared to take on, Shafer sounded a positive note when she said that “We must all remember that this outbreak will end.”

“When it does,” she concluded, “let it be with high school diplomas awarded to this very special Class of 2020 – a class of remarkably resilient young people who managed to complete their high school education during one of the most difficult times the world has ever seen.”

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