FORT POLK, La. — Being a senior in high school, with the final moments of youth culminating in graduation, is a major milestone in the lives of teenagers across the country. It’s the pinnacle moment when the last chapter of a child’s life ends, and the first chapter of an adult’s life begins. 

The occasion is marked with a ceremony, robe clad teens and a march to “Pomp and Circumstance,” in front of family and friends, to receive their diplomas. 

The valedictorian gives a heartfelt speech designed to inspire fellow graduates as they set off on new adventures, while mortarboards and tassels fly through the air in a celebratory toss. 

Parties with family and friends follow as the graduates are honored for their accomplishments and years of hard work. It is an emotional day for students, teachers and parents alike. 

This year, things are different. Amidst this year’s COVID-19 pandemic, as families across the country have hunkered down to slow the spread, schools have closed and seniors have lost the last moments of their high school experience. Due to social-distancing measures, the graduation for this year’s seniors will be different. For those who have graduated from high school, it’s difficult to imagine the myriad emotions the Class of 2020 is feeling. 

Their collective experience will mark their graduation memories in a way most will never experience or understand. 

The last day of school for students in Vernon and Beauregard parishes was March 13. That day, it was business as usual until dismissal, when kids learned that schools would be closed until April 13. As the days turned into weeks, the closures were extended, and uncertainty spread throughout the community. On April 15, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, at the request of the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, extended the closure of school facilities for the remainder of the academic year. 

Ashlynn Moretti, a senior at Leesville High School, said she was torn when the school year ended early. On one hand, she was glad the academic year was over; but, on the other, she was sad to see the school year end. 

“It all seems so unreal to me. I am heart broken that March 13 was the last time I would be walking the hallways as a current student. It hurts knowing that I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to all of my teachers, coaches and friends. I missed out on all the milestones and key things in high school, such as prom, senior awards day, JROTC change of command, senior skip day, senior prank and a traditional graduation ceremony,” said Moretti.

In addition to graduation, students missed several important events during the last months of their senior high school year. 

Sylvia Cini, Rosepine High School, said, “I am a little upset because I did not get a full senior year, which is the last year I get to spend time with friends and teachers before I go to college.”  

When schools closed, the ripple effect of cancelled events was felt far and wide. For seniors, these events would have been their last during their high school career. Sports seasons were cut short, dances cancelled, field trips and championship tournaments were no longer taking place. 

“I missed out on senior prom, senior awards day, senior ditch day, and I also was supposed to go to state for several clubs that I am in,” said Cini. 

Kremi Stander, Leesville High School, said he missed out on an opportunity of a lifetime. 

“This was my third year of running track. I miss my teammates. We had just placed first in the state and we were looking forward to keeping that torch burning and finishing the season strong,” Stander said.

A promenade dance, commonly referred to as prom, is a semi-formal, black tie event commonly celebrated at the end of the school year. 

Prom is popular and a major event for most high school students. Social media sites, like TikTok, are doing prom-at-home videos during the current pandemic; but for most kids, this is an event they are sad to have missed with school closures. 

Angel Martin, Pickering High School, said, “I feel like I have missed out on very important milestones, such as prom. I still plan to take prom pictures; but, as for the celebration of graduating, I don’t plan on doing anything. To me it’s just another wake-up call that the life ahead of me is beginning, and it’s beginning very fast.” 

Despite the uncertainty, the Class of 2020 has shown their resiliency by staying positive and connected during the stay-at-home order. 

Sam Brocato, Leesville High School, said, “My family takes the threat seriously so we are practicing the recommended measures to stay virus-free. I find myself well-rested; watching the sunset as a sunrise, and the sunrise as a sunset; running and exercising daily; playing soccer with my sister; doing school work online; and playing lots of FIFA with friends on Xbox Live.”  Brocato admits he is tired of only seeing his mom, sister and dog, and that he is looking forward to a haircut, a pedicure and a meal at Mexico Lindo.

In both Vernon and Beauregard parishes, the plans for graduation are still in limbo. All decisions made will hinge upon recommendations from the governor’s office. Keegan Morgan, Leesville High School, said he was not entirely sure what a virtual graduation would look like if they have one. 

“I do feel like I’ve missed out on several important milestones, such as prom and my final concert for band and walking across the stage for graduation. These were all major events I was looking forward to at the end of the year,” he said.

Army Families are used to change and are adaptable to life situations as they present themselves. 

This is no different; the students are preparing to graduate and making the best of the situation, while holding their heads high and looking forward to the future. 

Tyler Chapman, Leesville High School, said, “My mom is busy decorating our house for graduation. We have a big sign outside, and our dining room is a shrine to my accomplishments. We were supposed to go on a trip, but that will have to wait until next summer. My grandparents were supposed to come, but we will travel to Florida to see them the second it is safe to do so. It’s hard to be an Army Family in times like this. I have tons of family all over the country, so it would be hard for them to travel here under normal circumstances — it was always going to be a small celebration. The best part is that my mom and grandma always make everything extra special. It is still going to be fun.” 

The collective experience of the Class of 2020 is as unique as each student. The mutual care and consideration these students have taken to slow the spread of this virus, through the sacrifice of milestones, is something on which to remark. Although the circumstances remain disappointing and unfair, these young adults have helped countless citizens by staying home, staying healthy and doing their collective part to battle the virus. 

Congratulations Class of 2020; go forth and do great things. The future is yours.