Podcast Transcript: Missed Milestones: Graduating High School During a Global Pandemic

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Sara Ruiz: We went to pick up our yard sign and then I saw all the cars of all my teachers and they were right there saying goodbye to us. That’s when I realized I’m really missing out. Like I’m really missing out on a lot of stuff that I would love to be living, right? And It’s really no one’s fault. Like, I can’t blame anyone, like, it’s not my fault, it’s not their fault, it’s just something that happened.

Alejandro Izaguirre: That was Sara Ruiz, a senior at Cypress Springs High School in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD. She is one of the thousands of Texas high school seniors who did not experience a traditional graduation or get to say a proper goodbye to her friends, teachers, and the high school itself.

Melissa Ramirez, also a senior at Cypress Springs High School, remembers the exact moment when she realized high school was over.

Melissa Ramirez: I was kind of going through my memories in high school and I think it was a picture that I had with my friends in the cafeteria and I was like, “Wow, I’m not going to be in there anymore as a student.” And that’s when it kind of hit me like, “Whoa. There’s no more bus ride, there’s no more school lunch. There’s no more walking down the hallway being scared of being late.” There’s none of that because, you know, it’s not there anymore, we won’t be able to be there anymore.

Dr. Martha Zamora-Salazar: They left for spring break, and never would have dreamed we wouldn’t ever bring them back again. By the time they come back, it will be as visitors, no longer as students.

Alejandro: From Raise Your Hand Texas, I’m Alejandro Izaguirre, and this is Intersect Ed, where the stories of Texas public education policy and practice meet. In the previous episode of Intersect Ed, we told the stories of Texas public school teachers rising to the challenge of COVID-19 – how it has affected them mentally, in their daily work, and in their relationships with each other and their students. 

Today’s story is about our high school seniors and the immense loss they felt as their high school experience culminated during the midst of a global pandemic, and how educators ensured they successfully completed their senior year. As Dr. Martha  Zamora-Salazar,  the superintendent of Tomball ISD, said it wasn’t clear right away all that might be lost: the proms, celebratory dinners, banquets, and of course, graduation ceremonies.

Jackie Peña: I am the first to graduate in the top 10 of my class. So graduation for me was kind of like my perfect dream.

Alejandro: That voice belongs to Jackie Peña, a senior at Sam Rayburn High School in Pasadena ISD.

Jackie: I was supposed to speak up there, and I was gonna like to pour my heart out to all the other students.

Alejandro: In addition to the emotional toll of missing out on so many life-changing moments, a lack of connectivity both to their school work and their friends, took a tremendous toll on these seniors as they prepared to transition to the next phase of their lives. This story will highlight how school closures and the global pandemic impacted the final semester of high school for seniors, how they struggled due to the abrupt transition to an online setting and a lack of access to technology, and how they still managed to succeed thanks to the efforts of many dedicated Texas educators.

Vanessa Reyes: This not only is a time of uncertainty, but it’s a time of grief. They’re grieving the loss of the normalcy that comes from being in school and being with their friends and being with teachers who love them.

Alejandro: Vanessa Reyes, Principal of Sam Rayburn High School in Pasadena ISD, says many of her students have gotten jobs as essential workers and even become de facto homeschool teachers responsible for watching younger siblings. 

Vanessa: That poses an issue because where they used to come to school and have a controlled environment in which to learn and perform academically, that’s been taken away from them. And you know, they’re babysitting, they’re cooking, they’re teaching elementary school, and that’s been an incredible demand, not only on their time but in a lot of cases taxing emotionally.

Alejandro: And for many students, school is the place where they find a sense of home and safety. Not being in the classroom creates many academic and personal challenges students must confront. Sara Ruiz shares more on this.

Sara: For many kids that their parents are not there with them all the time, that must be really hard. There are kids that, they really go to school, well, to study but also because they don’t want to be at home because things are so hard at home. Their escape was school, right? It was their safe place somehow, and now they don’t have that anymore.

Alejandro: Then, because these students are getting ready to go off on their own, you add the layer of beginning the college admissions process.

Vanessa: Them earning their credits in order to graduate, the college readiness piece as it relates to applying for college, completing FAFSA or TAFSA, getting enrolled, getting registered for orientation. In some cases, things as simple as printing forms. They don’t have a printer, right? And so we’ve been printing forms and mailing them to them so that they can get them off to the colleges.

Alejandro: Seniors like Abby Brown, who attends Magnolia High School in Magnolia ISD, are just beginning to understand what the efforts of their teachers and administrators meant to them as they finished their final semester of high school. 

Abby: I would say that Magnolia has definitely actually been really supportive. My counselor has helped us ensure that the scholarships that were still available through on the local level were still accessible and still submittable. And she’s negotiated deadlines with a good number of scholarships that were originally due towards the end of March out to like May, which has been really, really helpful because I mean I just wouldn’t have had the opportunity to apply for those scholarships without her help.

Alejandro: Dr. Zamora-Salazar described, educators in her district worked tirelessly to ensure seniors met graduation requirements .

Dr. Zamora-Salazar: For them, it was really important that we, first, made sure that they had all they needed to have their credits to legally be certified as a graduate to move on. 

Alejandro: High school seniors and their teachers had to adapt to distance learning while also ensuring that assignments were not missed and grades were turned in on time because for them, success in their classes was the difference between graduating or not. 

Jackie: Transitioning to online classes was definitely a whole, like it was a whole different level of confusing emotions. Especially a lot of my friends, I know did not have WiFi or like the technical like material that we needed. I don’t think anyone was prepared for this to just like overturn. It’s just a lot. It’s just that face-to-face interaction that we’re missing. And I know a lot of students were starting to struggle and starting to fail a little bit and as seniors that really takes the impact on us because everything is based on our graduation. We can’t graduate if we can’t pass our last couple of classes that we needed. It was really challenging overall.

Alejandro: Abby also spoke of the moments of high pressure she felt as the end of the semester approached.

Abby: I have taken a visual arts course where at the end of our senior year we get to have a big ole art exhibition over the topic of our choice. I have spent two years making art for this exhibition with plans and like blueprints of how it’s going to be set up and everything. And, of course, that didn’t get to happen.  Over April was probably one of the most stressful moments of my entire senior year. We had to, basically, change gears and completely digitalize our entire exhibition over the course of two weeks. It just seems like everything is both expected at a quicker rate, but then also takes longer to do through digital communication. 

Alejandro: Many seniors felt the loss of the other experiences they have at school, such as extracurricular activities. For Marie Yanchak, senior at Magnolia High School, school closures and the pandemic has meant missing out on events she’s invested all year. Marie has been a member of the Future Farmers of America since the 7th Grade. Every year, she participates in her local county livestock show. But the pandemic changed her plans. 

Marie: At that point, we were all staying home and I was in my room doing some homework or something and my mom came in my door and told me that they had just canceled our County fair and I was absolutely devastated. I had multiple projects, we invested a lot of money into this, and it was my senior year. So, of course, everybody wants to have that last victory or that last really good memory of being able to do what they love in high school. And I just really felt like that had been stolen or just disappeared, like it doesn’t exist anymore. I think that it wasn’t unexpected but it was still that little feeling of disappointment

Alejandro: That feeling of disappointment is a commonality among the seniors we talked to, most especially when it is tied to events that would have celebrated their accomplishments. Jackie remembers how hard she worked to be recognized in front of her peers.

Jackie: We have like this whole gala where we just celebrate our accomplishments. It was really challenging for me to come up from rank 22 to 9. So I was really looking forward to this. And as soon as we got that email saying, “I’m sorry, but it’s canceled because of just safety.” So just reading that email, I just started crying. 

Alejandro: For Melissa Ramirez, graduation was going to be a huge moment for her entire family. 

Melissa: Graduation for me it’s kind of like a really important milestone. Not just for me personally but for my whole entire family because out of my parents and my brothers, none of them have seen graduation. I’m doing this not just for myself, not just for my 12 years of education but for them because they never got to see this moment.

Alejandro: For Kaitlyn Page, a senior at Cypress Springs High School, it was more like a fresh start.

Kaitlyn: Graduation is, it’s like turning a new leaf of sorts. You’ve completed high school, and now you’re supposed to go on into the adult world and start adulting and like after you walk across that stage, your life is completely yours. It’s what you make with it. And so I think this year, I feel like when I walked out of the doors to be let go for spring break, that was my crossing the threshold. Like that was my turning the new leaf because now I’m home more. Now we are just where we are. 

Alejandro: Educators know the importance of graduation as much as anyone. As  Dr. Zamora-Salazar explains, they did their best to make sure it was a memorable one.

Dr. Zamora-Salazar: My heart goes out to them. I think there’s a lot that the senior class has had to — a lot of traditions that they’ve not been able to celebrate. But I will say, I feel like our students, as well as many others throughout the state and nation understand. And although they’re sad about it, they realize there are bigger issues happening.

Kaitlyn: My teachers, they all send out a weekly, not necessarily a checklist, but a like check-up list to see how you’re feeling. And some teachers are very creative with it. They’ll send out the Google Sheets form for us to fill out. I have this one teacher who likes to send out the form and say, “How are you feeling? Are you feeling Beyoncé-like, or are you feeling like you need a little hug or something?” It’s very interesting. I love how they communicate that with us. It’s very touching and nice to know that they’re still checking up on us, even though they can’t see us day-to-day. 

A few of my friends and I, we like to call each other kind of just out of the blue we’re like, “I know you’re home, you have no reason not to answer me. So, unless you’re sleeping, which you should wake up for me.” But we like to FaceTime each other a lot. Several times during the day just call and then hang up to go eat and then call back just to be able to know that we’re still there and we’re still connected even though we are like separated.

Jackie: I repeat this and I post about it: Sam Rayburn High School is the best high school because they have been my biggest motivation. Stay-at-home orders just make you feel trapped inside your home. You can’t really go outside for anything. You just can’t risk it at this point. Being at home really made me feel excluded from the real world, even though there wasn’t really much going on social-wise. 

Rayburn and Pasadena ISD alone have been the best to our students. They went above and beyond to show their students that they care, especially with teachers at Rayburn. With everything that’s going on, I’m still kind of excited, the fact that we’re getting as close to a normal year as possible. And it’s been challenging thinking of the endless possibilities of what this pandemic is going to come to. Rayburn and Pasadena ISD have really calmed my nerves about that.

Alejandro: Despite the unique challenges presented by the global pandemic, the seniors we spoke to were excited for what comes next.  

Jackie: I do plan on attending the University of Houston, the main campus, and I do want to continue my education to become an optometrist. Majoring in biology.

Katelyn Nguyen: I want to be a surgeon and I’m going to UT Austin. And I’m going to be majoring in biochem. And I want to do the pre-med route and then go into medical school.

Kaitlyn Page: After graduation, the original plan was to attend the University of Texas at San Antonio to master in business and to minor in linguistics because I love languages, I love the study of languages.

Abby: I’m going to be attending the University of Oregon in the fall to major in architecture. 

Melissa: Knowing that I can be a leader I want to get some type of leadership position anywhere that I go. So for the fall I’m going to be going to Arizona State University and I want to major in psychology.

Alejandro: The Class of 2020 has shown remarkable resilience and determination. The care and support demonstrated by teachers and principals helped these seniors reach the finish line. Let’s continue to advocate for teachers to ensure the best outcomes for all our students. 

Melissa: For us, yeah we don’t have our high school graduation but we still have the blessing of going to college and still, hopefully getting our college graduation. It’s definitely bittersweet because we want our high school graduation, of course, but still, you know I’m looking at this like, “We have another one.”

Alejandro: From Raise Your Hand Texas, I’m Alejandro Izaguirre and this is IntersectEd. This story is part of our series highlighting the incredible ways in which Texas educators have stepped up during the COVID-19 crisis. Coming up in our next episode you’ll hear how principals across the state are working together to plan and prepare for an uncertain fall semester. Thanks for listening to IntersectEd. If you want to learn more about how to support Texas public education or how to get involved, head over to RaiseYourHandTexas.org.


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