Ashley Sturla has been thinking about her senior year for as long as she can remember. Prom, Grad Bash, Senior Skip Day and most of all graduation — she couldn’t wait.

“I thought it was going to be like the movies, literally,” said Sturla, 18, a senior at Atlantic High in Port Orange, Florida.

Then coronavirus changed everything.

Now, Sturla is one of Florida’s 200,000 high school seniors waiting to find out what’s going to happen to their graduation dreams. So far, schools are closed through April, and extracurricular activities scheduled for the month, like prom, were canceled, too. But graduations, which take place largely at the end of May, are just far enough away to offer a glimmer of hope — and a lot of uncertainty.

“I know logically that it’s gonna get canceled,” Spruce Creek High senior Kassy Sanders said, “but I just keep hoping that it won’t because it kind of feels like that little bit of hope is the only thing getting me through it.”

Schools across the country are shut down as part of efforts to slow the spread of the virus, many through the end of the school year. Some districts have already given up on plans for a spring graduation. At a White House news briefing on Tuesday, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he thinks the country will be "in good shape" to reopen schools in the fall.

The St. Johns County school district in northeast Florida already chose to cancel graduation ceremonies. But most Florida school districts are waiting to hear from state leaders whether school closures will extend past May 1 and into graduation season. So far during the pandemic, decisions about closures have come unexpectedly through late-afternoon phone calls or broadcasted press conferences, sending districts scrambling to keep up.

“I’m really upset and I’ve been really anxious,” Sturla said. “We just don’t know anything.”

Contingency plans

In Sturla's home of Volusia County, school officials met with student representatives from each high school and heard a nearly unanimous message: Students want a traditional graduation ceremony. The district hasn’t announced it yet, but spokeswoman Kelly Schulz said they’re looking at hosting graduation ceremonies later in the summer.

Escambia County school district Superintendent Malcolm Thomas promised something similar last week.

“We're going to do whatever we can do to make sure a graduation ceremony is held,” he said at a press conference, adding that July graduations would be a possibility.

Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Diana Greene said in a message to families that she’s hopeful graduations will be able to continue in May, but if not, her team is looking into “various creative ways” to honor graduates.

And in Collier County, it’s business as usual — until the district hears otherwise from health officials and the Florida Department of Education. That guidance is what each district has been waiting for. Throughout the entire pandemic, schools have mostly acted after getting guidance or orders from state officials.

Bethany Battistone, whose son is graduating from Seabreeze High in Daytona Beach, isn’t as optimistic as some district officials.

“Even if the kids go back to school on May 1, I don’t foresee having thousands of people in a room together at the end of May,” she said. “As a parent, I’m a little heartbroken for the kids … they’ve spent 13 of the 18 years they’ve been alive working for this one day.”

And the uncertainty in districts that have yet to make a call is weighing on some seniors.

“Graduation has not been canceled yet, but I am so afraid it will be,” said Kendall Little, a senior at Mandarin High School in Jacksonville. “Getting through high school was so tough and I’m anxious that the class of 2020′s hard work will go without recognition.”

Going virtual?

The St. Johns County school district's decision to cancel graduation was met with criticism right away from the community.

“Cut Grad Bash, I’m OK. Cut prom, I’m a bit bothered. Take away my last high school baseball season and I’m absolutely devastated and wrecked,” said ElJaiek Farid, a senior at Creekside High School. “Tell me I won’t have a graduation and I’m heartbroken entirely.”

Students started a petition to postpone rather than cancel traditional ceremonies, which so far has gathered more than 11,000 signatures.

The district is instead considering virtual options, similar to colleges like Florida State University.

Early on, graduation ceremonies were canceled at Florida universities, which are closed through the end of the school year. But Florida school districts have been slower to adapt to changes brought on by the coronavirus — in part because they’re taking their direction from Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has been eager to maintain normal operations as long as possible.

Students around the state are worried similar cancellations are in their futures.

"The main thing for us, whether it happens in May or it happens in July, we all still want to be able to walk that stage because we all worked so hard for 12 years," said Conner Rainey, the senior class president at Barron Collier High in Naples. "We want to be able to have that moment just like everybody else did, but we also want to make sure that it's safe for us to do that."

Missing out

Beyond traditional rites of passage like walking across the stage at graduation, seniors are also mourning time lost in their final year of school. Even though school is scheduled to return to normal on May 1, they’re skeptical. And they’re sad.

“We never got a last day. We never got a prom,” said Abbey Shea, a senior at Spruce Creek High in Port Orange. “I might not see any of my teachers again or any of my friends … It’s very heartbreaking for me.”

Her classmate Sanders felt the same way — upset about graduation, but also about the everyday things she may not get to experience again.

“I even just miss hearing my principal on the speaker telling us ‘It’s a great day to be a Hawk,’” she said, her voice cracking. “Because I’m never going to hear it again because I’m a senior.

“I just want to go back to school.” 

USA TODAY Network reporters Christen Kelley, Emily Bloch, Rachel Fradette, Bryan Dobson and Will Brown contributed to this report.