Photos | Shane Rice
Left to right: Front row, Leighelle Jackson; Leflore High School, Middle row, Z’Kia Campbell; B.C. Rain High School, Destiny Lynn Cheatwood; Baker High School, Jenna Lankford; Citronelle High School, back row, Trinity Laffitte Pettway; Williamson High School, Mollie Bearden; Murphy High School and Suttree DeLorge; Alma Bryant High School.
By Jason Johnson and Trice Brown
Those were a few of the adjectives seniors across coastal Alabama used to describe the past two months, as the final days of their high school careers were upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.
From private school athletes to public school scholars and everyone in between, the Class of 2020 has missed a number of milestones many had been looking forward to for years. A final sports season with friends, prom, spring break at the beach, baccalaureate … all derailed within a matter of days.
When Gov. Kay Ivey announced March 13 public schools throughout the state would be closing for two and half weeks to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, many students assumed they were just getting a longer spring break.
Some flocked to the beaches only to see them closed a few days later. Some focused on part-time jobs at locations that would soon be shut down as the state’s response to the pandemic evolved. But all the while, many students — and even some teachers — kept hope alive. Many thought, “We’ll be back before the end of the year.”
“You have this hope, ‘maybe we’ll get to finish out and I can make the most of these remaining [events],’ but then those got canceled too,” Jenna Lankford, a senior at Citronelle High School, said. “You have an expectation of what your senior year is going to look like, and seeing that taken away slowly … it hurt.”
Lankford, who is the valedictorian of her class, said she tried not to dwell on the negative too long. There wasn’t anything to be accomplished by being sad about the situation, so she shifted her focus toward learning from it and moving forward. Despite the disappointments, others have tried to do the same.
Mollie Bearden, who is the valedictorian of Murphy High School’s 2020 class, said she had to grow up a little faster because of the coronavirus. Getting to the top of her class took years of hard work, and she had two co-salutatorians who were never that far behind her academically.
As a self-described “goal-oriented” person, Bearden said she’d focused primarily on getting to the end of her high school career and securing the valedictorian spot for some time. She’s still setting goals for the future, but Bearden said having her plan upended so quickly really changed her outlook.
“At first, I felt like these things were all kind of taken away … there was no end, no closure. But then I started changing my perspective to think more in the present and trying to remain positive,” she said. “It’s good to be goal-oriented but maybe not so zeroed in on the destination. I’ve tried to keep in perspective just how lucky we are for me nor my family to have been affected [by COVID-19]. Thank, God!”
‘Our last game’
On May 18, 2019, McGill-Toolen High School catcher Jacob Huff hit a triple to bring in two runs during the final game of the 7A state baseball championship. Ten months later, his final season in a Yellow Jacket uniform ended abruptly after an otherwise routine doubleheader against two local schools.
Two weeks later, the Alabama High School Athletic Association announced, due to COVID-19, Huff’s final season, the playoffs and the championship McGill hoped to defend were all canceled.
“[A championship] is probably the highest you can get in high school sports, and then the very next year you’re expecting to try to do the same thing and it just stops,” Huff said. “Your last game is a doubleheader at [Mary G. Montgomery] that didn’t really mean anything. That’s just a big swing … highs and lows.”
Infielder and fellow team captain Sean Mason said the seniors knew those games at MGM might be the last they played together, but during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic — before the stay-at-home orders, business closures and daily case counts — there was still hope to be found.
Throughout high school, Mason said he’d looked forward to his final season so he could serve as a leader to the young players on the team like the seniors before him. He also said some of the players have known each other since they were hitting off tees and wanted to “play together one last time.”
While his high school career may have ended unexpectedly, Mason isn’t done with baseball. He was fortunate to commit to play for the University of Mobile Rams before the 2020 season started. But Mason said the fallout from COVID-19 has complicated some other players’ efforts to move to the next level.
“I felt terrible for some of the other guys that didn’t get the opportunities to show coaches what they could do,” Mason said. “A bunch of coaches were scheduled to come to our games this year, and I know some guys on the team that wanted to commit somewhere and it was harder for them.”
Head Coach Tim Becker said Huff was one of those players who would have likely made an impression in the games McGill didn’t get to play. By all accounts, he was having a breakout senior season. He was averaging 0.520 in 50 at-bats and had secured five doubles, two triples, 12 RBIs and eight runs over the first 14 games of the season. He was also named to al.com’s “Terrific 20” of coastal Alabama players.
“If I’d have kept going, I think I could have gotten more looks from bigger schools. Right now, I’m leaning toward junior college, but the end goal is I want to be playing on a big stage,” Huff said. “This was an unreal thing. Nothing like this has ever happened to me, and hopefully nothing ever will again. A senior season of sports … you don’t get that kind of chance more than a couple of times in your life.”
‘As normal as possible’
Though they’ve had to work around the restrictions all Alabamians have had to live with over the past two months, many teachers, class sponsors and administrators have focused on helping students who still need credits to graduate and salvaging as much of the senior experience as possible for the Class of 2020.
After the state adjourned in-person classes for the rest of the year last month, the guidance from the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) was all seniors already on track to graduate were finished. That was the case for many, but across the entire Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS), around 400 of the 3,500 graduating seniors had or still have some work to do before school officially ends June 5.
Murphy High School Principal Joe Toomey said things were a little more challenging than normal because his staff had to work remotely with those seniors who still needed credits. However, he said helping seniors take those final steps over the finish line isn’t anything new for teachers.
“We always have students that come into that last quarter who need to complete one of those core courses in order to graduate,” he said. “With everybody else already being finished, though, I think it’s actually helped us really focus on those few kids who just needed a little more. I think you’ll probably see across the county graduation rates could go up just because we are able to focus solely on those kids.”
As for the Class of 2020 as a whole, Toomey said it was important to him and his staff the seniors’ final days be as special as possible under this unique set of circumstances. One of the first things the school did was purchase two billboards that cycled through each class member’s senior portrait.
When seniors came to pick up their caps and gowns, there were 45 teachers waiting at a safe social distance with balloons and signs in a small parade to celebrate their accomplishment and say farewell to the class. High schools throughout the MCPSS district have done the same over the past two weeks.
Toomey also moved his daily “Panther Launch” announcements from the school intercom to social media to take his daily quotes and inspirational messages to seniors at home. The videos — usually of Toomey at home with his dogs, Betsy and Biscuit — caught the attention of others outside of the class as well.
Speaking with Lagniappe, Toomey said he wanted to do whatever he could to keep seniors focused on what they have to look forward to instead of the things they didn’t get to do because of COVID-19.
“It’s just depressing to sit at home and dwell about the things you’re missing out on and things that every senior class before you got to do. So, we wanted to do more special things for them just to take their minds off of it and remind them it’s not the end of the world,” Toomey said. “Their world is just now beginning. This is just a blip on the radar, and they’ve still got their entire lives in front of them.”
While prom, senior night and other activities were missed, valedictorians like Bearden, Lankford and Z’Kia Campbell at B.C. Rain High School said they were most looking forward to things like Honors Day and graduation itself. Campbell said she’s known for some time she was at the top of her class.
“I’ve always kept up with my grades. It was a big thing in my class. The top 10, all of us, when report cards or progress reports came out, we would kind of compare grades and talk about it,” Campbell said. “We got to go to prom last year and I know things like the senior picnic were supposed to be our last senior activities together, but Honors Day … that’s one I was really looking forward to the most.”
While honor students didn’t get the typical ceremony, MCPSS did do other things to recognize their efforts including digital announcements of the top 10 graduating seniors at each school and featuring interviews with and speeches from all 12 valedictorians on MCPSS TV and its social media feeds.
More importantly for some, because of the relaxing of some statewide social distancing guidelines, the ALSDE is also allowing schools throughout Alabama to host in-person graduation ceremonies with limited crowd sizes and other enhanced safety precautions.
Previously, schools were planning to postpone commencement or move forward with a virtual alternative.
Schools in MCPSS were originally looking at a drive-thru model that would have limited families and spectators to one vehicle as their graduate received a diploma at Ladd-Peebles stadium. Last week, Superintendent Chresal Threadgill announced each school would instead host in-person graduations, but each senior would be limited to only five tickets and social distancing rules would be strictly enforced.
Lankford said students are already having to make the difficult decision of picking which family members get to see them graduate. The plan has caught some criticism on social media, especially from those with larger families. Still, Lankford and other seniors said they were thankful to be having a ceremony at all.
“My intentions with every decision made as it relates to our MCPSS Class of 2020 are not only for the best interest of our students, but are in the best interest of spectators and all involved,” Threadgill said. “We know that not all decisions made will be favorable to everyone. However, with the pandemic we are facing, we ask that you respect that it is an extremely daunting task to plan graduation ceremonies for over 3,500 students within the parameters set forth and with time restraints.”
Across the bay, the Baldwin County Public School System has similar plans to celebrate its seniors. On Monday, Superintendent Eddie Tyler said commencements would be held June 1 and 2, with various times set for each high school. Students will be limited to just four guest tickets, according to Tyler.
This year, spring semester college graduates didn’t walk across a stage in front of their friends and family to accept their diploma. Instead, most of the Class of 2020 walked to the mailbox.
At universities across Alabama, spring graduation ceremonies have transitioned online or been postponed until state-level social distancing measures are lifted.
At the University of South Alabama (USA), the spring commencement ceremony was held virtually May 9, while the University of Mobile (UM) postponed its commencement ceremony until December. Spring Hill College (SHC) has yet to announce a date for its in-person ceremony, but does plan to have one.
The virtual commencement at USA was livestreamed at the same time the ceremony is traditionally held and featured students giving their thoughts on their time at South and a message to graduates from the dean of each college. During the ceremony, graduates’ names scrolled down the screen.
Sara Boone was getting lunch with her family at Raising Cane’s as her name came across her phone.
“It’s something,” she said in an interview prior to the ceremony. “Obviously, we are never going to get the same graduation ceremony that we would have gotten before, so I keep taking in as many of the supplemental items that they are giving us.”
Boone said the digital ceremony gave her a bit of closure on her college experience, though she hopes some kind of in-person event might be salvageable. So far, USA hasn’t announced any plans to do that.
At UM, graduate Emily Kelleher said her class commencement will likely be the last big thing she does with all of her college friends even if it is delayed by a few months. However, Kelleher is planning on searching for a job over the next few months, so she doesn’t know if she’ll be able to come back in December.
Grayson Holt and James LaBiche, UM graduates who say they’ll be staying in the Mobile area, told Lagniappe they’re excited to attend the ceremony, and like members of UM’s administration, they’re optimistic most of their classmates will be able to work it into their schedules as well.
“Most people I’ve talked to are excited to be able to have an actual graduation ceremony,” Holt said.
According to Ashley Rains, director of media and public relations at SHC, the college polled its seniors and the class was almost unanimously in favor of postponing their commencement so it could be held in person. Rains said commencement is an “extremely special tradition” at SHC. Held on the iconic Avenue of the Oaks, some students’ parents and grandparents participated in the same ceremony.
Many students indicated they’d prefer a summer ceremony, but no date has been set at this time.
On the day seniors were supposed to graduate, SHC released a video that included photos of graduates and their class throughout the years. Rains said the college wanted to acknowledge the date and recognize the graduates’ accomplishments even if it couldn’t be done in person.
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