The Quarantine Class of TF South

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TF South’s 2020 graduates adjust to missing end of senior year, garner new appreciation for family and teachers

by Carrie Steinweg

LANSING, Ill. (May 11, 2020) – The month of May is typically one where seniors at TF South High School are savoring their final days with classmates, attending end-of-the-year banquets and awards ceremonies, participating in spring sports like baseball or track, celebrating college acceptances, having end-of-the-year pizza parties and meetings with their clubs, getting their yearbooks signed, attending prom, cleaning out their lockers, and walking across the stage to accept the diplomas they’ve worked so hard for during the past four years.

But this May has been anything but typical. Seniors haven’t been in their classrooms since mid-March, and they won’t be back to say goodbye to friends or participate in a graduation ceremony.

A new appreciation

No other generation on the planet today has experienced a senior year quite like this one. Although students aren’t walking the halls of the physical building, they’ve been adapting to online morning attendance check-ins, electronic lessons, and Zoom classroom meetings.

The experience of living through the pandemic during their senior year of high school has created a lot of disappointment for these teens, but from it they’ll carry with them a number of lessons that will strengthen them and teach them about resiliency, compassion, determination, and sacrifice.

“This pandemic has not only taught me all the things I took for granted but especially how precious time is,” explained Alyssa Calderon, a member of TF South’s class of 2020. “In the past weeks, I watched everything I was looking forward to this year be snatched away from me and not being able to do anything about it. I eventually started to become too numb to even cry. As my mom would say, ‘It is the continual feeling of being robbed.’ And it was.”

“Senior year was looking good for me in every way possible,” Calderon continued. “I started doing things I never would’ve done before. I ran for homecoming court and walked down the aisle at the dance with a crown and a sash. I went to every year of homecoming without ever thinking that would be me walking down that aisle.”

Calderon wishes that she’d known that the last days in the classroom would be the final time she’d see some of her peers, but she said she now has a greater appreciation for the time she has with those who are most important to her.

“Most adults could say senior year was a great year for them and how it may be a blur, but graduation and prom would always be a clear memory. I will just wonder what that would’ve been like for me and leave it for my imagination,” she said. “This global pandemic will change things forever, and a lot of things won’t be the same. The only thing I can take from this is that it will make me a stronger person and cause me to live to the fullest. It sucks to crave a hug—a simple hug—from someone you love. It hurts even more to be 6 feet away from them and still feel like they’re so far. I promised myself to say ‘I love you’ more and to appreciate people when I can. The only thing I can do is continue to look forward and make the best of what’s to come.”

Cancellations

“School year 2019-2020 is officially the weirdest and most disconcerting of my entire 31-year career so far,” said teacher Ann Witting. “We were one day away from competing with our contest play when everything shut down. We’ve never missed a season.

“The actors, especially the seniors, were devastated after working since January on the play and the group interpretation. I’m the daughter of two teachers, so I understand how messed up you can get when the school year schedule is off. Everything feels otherworldly, like time has stopped. Fourth quarter is the time to figure out your prom plans, fight senioritis, go to end-of-the-year banquets for sports and activities, buy shoes you can walk in for graduation, and make plans with your friends to fill the last summer you will all be together like this with as many fun activities as possible.”

The cancellation of theatre season is one of the things that senior Sean Schuljak is most sad about regarding the pandemic. He’s also missing his first art show and is bummed about the abrupt end to activities and award ceremonies. He’s been keeping in touch with friends via text and social media.

One silver lining that he has recognized was the opportunity to spend more time with his family before he heads off to Arizona State University in the fall.

Theatre productions are just one of many activities that came to an end when schools closed in March. So did the track season, which had just gotten under way before the school closings.

“I am definitely mourning the loss of our track season and feel for the seniors who lost their senior season. Our teams this year were poised to do some special things, and that just makes it harder for everyone,” said Track Coach Ellie Belli. “However, our seniors have handled it with maturity and grace. They have been helping us coaches navigate this tough time just as much as we have been trying to help them. Our season might have been canceled, but our team support of one another has not.”

Adjustments for staff and students

It’s been a strange and uncertain time for not just the students, but also the educators. They too have had their world turned upside down by suddenly having to shift all their lessons online. Many are parents themselves of school-aged children whom they are now home with. Like many other parents, they are doing double duty by providing child care for their children while also teaching their students.

“Teaching remotely is very difficult because we cannot fully explain to the students what we truly want them to accomplish,” said Christopher Roberts, social studies teacher and sponsor of the History Club/Mock Trial. “Also, we are limited on certain things we can do since not all students have the same resources available. Many of the students are struggling to turn in assignments or being totally engaged with the lesson.”

Depending on the individual student and the way they learn best, the at-home learning can be something they are very successful at or something they really have a hard time with. “Some students are doing very well, as they like having the independence to complete their work at their own pace,” said Roberts. “However, some students need that structure of the building to keep them on track, or they tend to fall behind.”

Kids also currently don’t have the common thread of sitting in the same classroom and getting the instruction in the same way with the same resources. There are vast differences in home environments. “Students throughout our country have different circumstances, which makes learning in this environment challenging. Some students have limited access to technology. Others are stepping up to take over childcare responsibilities while their parents are working to provide for their family. Regardless of our situations, the stress and anxiety brought on by this virus affects all students,” said Matthew Cherry, Social Studies Division Leader and Scholastic Bowl Coach.

“Learning for students is certainly different, and a challenge for many,” Cherry continued. “Uncertainty is something many people struggle with, and this epidemic is amplifying that. Students and teachers were hopeful there would be a return to normalcy relatively quickly, but that continues to be delayed for the greater good of lives saved.”

Schuljak’s mom, Julie, who is an elementary school teacher, said she’s not a fan of e-learning because it can be harder for students to understand lessons. As a parent, she said there are some things she can’t really help her kids with when they have questions.

Staying motivated

Belli, who also teaches in the math department, acknowledged that even in a normal year it can be hard to keep seniors on track in the final weeks. This year, she’s noticing it’s as true as ever—if not more so.

“It’s been hard to keep the senior class motivated for online learning to finish the year, and I don’t blame them. When everything important to them is cancelled, I can definitely understand not wanting to log in every day to complete work,” she said. “I’ve been making my own videos and trying to keep instruction to just the absolute necessary topics to finish the year. I have several students who will be completing the Advanced Placement Stats test online at the end of May, and they are working hard despite all that is going on.”

Missing out

“The pandemic has effected me because right now I’m missing out on my senior soccer season—which I am captain of varsity for—prom, graduation, and my admitted students day for UIUC,” said Bella Bonifazi. “I appreciate all the work my teachers are doing for e-learning; however, this type of learning is not ideal. It’s been hard for the majority of students I know, including myself, to actually learn something new instead of just reviewing or doing random assignments because they aren’t in a normal classroom setting.”

Even with the havoc caused by the pandemic, Bonifazi recognizes what a tough job it’s also been for her teachers, who are just as disappointed for them. “I’m very fortunate that I have outstanding teachers like my AP Human Geography teacher, Mr. Tiffy, and my AP Statistics teacher, Mrs. Belli, that have gone above and beyond to prepare me for the advanced placement tests by answering questions any time of day and having multiple Zoom class during a week.”

Senior Bella Bonifazi appreciates the work her teachers have put into helping her succeed during a difficult year. (Photo provided)

Great expectations

As tough and trying as this experience can be, those who have been teaching the senior class have high hopes that they’ll learn much from what they’re going through and that they’ll turn this curveball into a positive.

Alyssa Calderon (left) stops for a photo with teacher Christopher Roberts during Prom 2019. “Alyssa is one of my favorite students,” said Roberts. “She is headed to NIU in the fall, where she will major in Communicative Disorders and minor in Spanish.” (Photo provided)

”What I hope for all my students, and especially my seniors, is that they have learned a powerful lesson about how important it is to live every moment, to appreciate what you have before you lose it—and that if they can handle living during a worldwide disaster like this pandemic, the rest of life is going to be a walk in the park,” said Witting.

Cherry is also optimistic that the class of 2020 will do great things, despite—and even because of—what they’ve had to overcome this year.

“Senior year is one of the most memorable years of a person’s life. Missing out on prom, graduation, and daily interactions with their classmates is something none of us could have anticipated at the beginning of the school year,” he said. “I am hopeful that through this challenging time, more students across the nation will be determined to prevent issues such as this from occurring in the future and go into professions that will help our society become more safe, innovative, and collaborative. It is because of the students I have taught at TF South that I believe this will become a reality.”

TF South High School is located at 18500 Burnham Avenue in Lansing, Illinois.