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Will prom go on? NYC students wonder what will become of high school milestones in the time of coronavirus.

Maryam Diallo is a student at Medgar Evers Preparatory in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Maryam Diallo is a student at Medgar Evers Preparatory in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Courtesy of Maryam Diallo

Deposits had been collected for one last school trip together. The date for prom had been set. It was nearly time for caps and gown measurements to be taken.

High school was drawing down for tens of thousands of New York City seniors. For juniors looking ahead to college, the closure has thrown into question whether they’ll be able to take needed entry exams, rack up volunteer hours, or go on campus tours. Plus, the threat of the new coronavirus forced schools to close down so abruptly that many students left their textbooks and calculators in their lockers, and might not be back to school this year to retrieve them.

The country’s largest school system shut down as of March 16. It’s unclear whether students will head back to class this school year, upending some of the most memorable high school milestones and traditions. Some students have responded with memes of prom-goers in hazmat suits, or virtual strolls across the graduation stage, while they wonder what will become of final exams, college preparations, and all of the hallmarks of high school’s end.

Here is what students across the city told us about approaching graduation in the time of coronavirus.

Prom and pep rallies on hold

Before the shutdown, student union president Vishwaa Sofat was busy planning the kinds of events and experiences that define senior year at Stuyvesant High School, New York City’s most competitive and prestigious public school.

A contract had already been written up to throw prom at the usual location, Cipriani Wall Street, a high-end event space in a historic Beaux-Arts building not far from the Lower Manhattan school. Dates were set for spirit days, including one where everyone wears a sports jersey to school.

Vishwaa Sofat
Vishwaa Sofat

Instead, Vishwaa, who is 18 years old, found himself last week planning a virtual pep rally from his laptop. The union asked students to send in their quarantine selfies, and about a hundred responded with photos. Some held up hand sanitizer or toilet paper. Many were in their pajamas.

For a school community made up largely of immigrant families, the loss of high school traditions is keenly felt.

“Those are key facets of any high school experience, especially an American high school experience,” Vishwaa said. “Thinking that might not be something we go through, there’s a huge amount of sadness to that.”

Google hangouts and Zoom videos can only go so far to replace the sense of community inside a school building. Vishwaa is wondering how his classmates will fare when the next wave of college acceptance letters hits in late April, but there’s no guidance counselor or best friend by their side to offer a hug or a tissue.

At school, “there’s someone you go and open it with. There’s a support system you have built-in,” he said.

Graduation hangs in the balance

Some students may see remote learning as a chance to take it easy. Not Claire Nguyen, a 17-year-old senior at Bronx Academy for Software Engineering. She has been spending her time doing research online and writing up a capstone project that, in normal times, can make or break a senior’s chances of earning a diploma.

“I don’t want to fail,” she said. “I still want to graduate.”

She’s remaining busy with her project, which explores misogyny in pop culture, though it has been “a struggle” to have to rely completely on online tools, without any in-person guidance. Still, Claire and her classmates are anxious about whether a passing grade will be enough to graduate. Though New York State has hit pause on standardized tests for elementary and middle school students, there’s been no word on whether Regents exams, which are needed to earn a diploma, will be waived.

If those year-end exams move online, like the rest of the school year has, Claire is worried many students could fail since they might not be able to keep up with virtual classes. She knows of at least one student at her school who hasn’t had electricity at home, making remote learning impossible.

“It’s been pretty stressful mentally because there’s a lot of confusion about what we’re doing and whether we’re going to graduate,” she said.

Babysitting duties steal focus from college plans

While seniors are missing out on many end-of-year events, their peers in the junior class are worried they’re losing ground during a critical year that puts them on their college path.

Maryam Diallo, a junior at the high-performing Medgar Evers Preparatory in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, had been taking college-level courses through the college her school is named for. The college shut down days before K-12 schools did, sending her classes in English, biology, sociology, and math online. Then her high school closed its doors, adding an Advanced Placement biology and gym class to the virtual load.

Now she’s juggling school with babysitting while her parents work. During the day Maryam is responsible for her younger siblings, including one in kindergarten. She misses the structure and quiet of the classroom and worries that her grades — and her chances for admission at an elite college — could suffer.

“It’s kind of hard because my family is loud,” said Maryam, who is 16 years old. “I can’t concentrate here.”

If classes resume at the end of April, students will have just a few weeks before the Advanced Placement tests that will determine whether they’ll earn college credits. The more likely scenario is that students will have to take the tests online. Neither sounds ideal to Maryam, whose AP biology teacher had been opening class with practice questions that she found incredibly helpful.

“Learning new content is not the same online, or at home by yourself, as it is face-to-face when you’re with your teacher. I’m worried,” she said. “Am I going to pass this AP?”

Unlike the AP exams, the SAT, which is critical for college admissions has been postponed. Maryam is taking a prep course through SEO Scholars, a program aimed at closing opportunity gaps that keep young people from going to college. But she hasn’t taken the three-hour SAT practice exam that she’s supposed to because she doesn’t have somewhere quiet and comfortable to work.

With virtually all of New York City in quarantine, she’s also worried about completing all her volunteer hours and the extracurricular work that can help make a college application stand out.

“I want to go to the best college I can possibly go to,” Maryum said. “Now this pauses everything right in the most important part.”

The COVID-19 outbreak is changing our daily reality

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