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The class of COVID-19: Seniors express disappointment — but also optimism — as they graduate during pandemic

Editor’s note: The Tribune-Herald spoke in-depth to six seniors from various East Hawaii high schools about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on them during their final semester. The interviews were conducted prior to this weekend’s drive-through and “virtual” graduation celebrations.

There is very little that’s traditional this year about the pomp — or circumstances — for the class of 2020.

High school seniors are graduating during an unprecedented pandemic that has cancelled in-person classes during the last months of their final school year, shortened their last athletic seasons, and put a halt to traditional teenage rites, like prom and commencement.

“This last semester has been rough,” said Honokaa High School senior Kayla Miura. “I feel like I’ve missed out on a lot of the lasts my classmates and I were looking forward to. It’s also a scary feeling to be so unsure about the near future.”

The spring semester came with lots of obstacles, she said, but at the start of the COVID-19 crisis, Miura had high hopes the chaos would blow over.

“I even started to write my speech during spring break, thinking I would still have the opportunity to do it in front of my class,” she said. “It was hard to know that graduation had been canceled, but since then I’ve been trying to make the most out of what I can.”

For Keaau High School senior Leilani Stone, school isn’t just a place of learning, but a place to connect with friends and teachers.

Now that school’s over, Stone said she’s missing out on the memories that could have been made over the last quarter, but can see the bigger picture.

“I’m growing up right now, (and) realizing my whole world isn’t just about me,” she said.

Waiakea High School senior Genesis Andrewson-Aitogi, however, said she enjoyed being able to do school work from home this semester.

“It gave me a chance to breathe from all the student activities,” she said. “I did have to cope some days and sometimes dealing with the fact that I wouldn’t be able to have the traditional ceremonies and activities.”

While Waiakea High School was able to hold its prom before the pandemic hit, Andrewson-Aitogi said she and her classmates missed out on the school’s annual senior awards night, which was hosted virtually; May Day; and athletic awards, an important celebration for her, because she was concluding her last season of water polo and cheer.

“I was really looking forward to spending my senior year with my friends and class of 2020, but sometimes life just doesn’t go the way you plan,” Honokaa High senior Zavier Ugalde said.

For Kylie Aurello, another Honokaa grad, the semester has proven stressful.

“Until this last semester of my high school career, I don’t think I was ever as stressed as I am now, especially with the sudden change of everything having to be online,” she said. “I still had AP tests I had to finish, college things that still had to be settled, the final details of our yearbook that had to be submitted, and it was so easy to get distracted at home.”

Hilo High School senior Auie Joe Madiam said there was hope students would return, even after spring break was extended a week.

“We didn’t know it would go on and on …,” she said. “During that time, it was hard to keep faith. A lot of things (were) going wrong, and we knew that we probably wouldn’t get the graduation we wanted, and that was discouraging, I believe, to a lot of our classmates.”

A number of the seniors who spoke to the Tribune-Herald said they are sad to miss traditional, and long-anticipated, commencement ceremonies and celebrations, while others are disappointed their final athletic seasons were upended by the outbreak.

Stone said she’d most miss graduating with and being close to her class during commencement.

Miura and Aurello both expressed disappointment about missing out on a traditional graduation.

“It’s the big event that we had all been counting down to, the day where our four years of high school would be celebrated with our friends right beside us and close family in the crowd,” Miura said. “I won’t be able to congratulate my classmates with a lei and say goodbye to some of those I may never see again.”

When the traditional graduation ceremonies were canceled, Miura said she couldn’t believe the news. Weeks before, her class had picked up their caps, gowns and the graduation announcements they would no longer need.

“It was heartbreaking to know that Friday before spring break was our last day as students,” she said. “Though our graduation will be unique and make history, there is nothing that can replace the experience of having a normal graduation.”

Aurello shared similar sentiments, and said she was “heartbroken and angry” when she learned her class wouldn’t be able to walk at graduation.

“This was supposed to be the time when I’d get to rejoice with my classmates about finally being able to check this milestone off our list,”Aurello said. “My school has this tradition of seniors driving up the school road on our last day of school, beeping our car horns, but we won’t get to do that now. We were supposed to move our tassels and sing our alma mater for the last time together. But now that can’t happen. I won’t get to experience the joy (of) wearing and giving out all those leis to my classmates. I won’t get to hug them and tell them how much I love them. And, sadly, I won’t get to say goodbye to the ones I will never see again.”

Andrewson-Aitogi, who was team captain of her water polo team this year, said she was most upset about losing out on her final season.

Madiam also missed her senior judo season and said it was an emotional day when she learned the season wouldn’t continue.

“It was bittersweet because our sensei … started coaching my team when I was a freshman,” she said.

Ugalde said that not being able to play his final baseball season stings the most.

“Not being able to have a senior night, have that last away game with the team, that last bus ride, that last practice with them, and to share that last moment on the field with some amazing athletes,” he said. “That is probably what I was most excited for during my senior year, it’s to have finished this season and year with a bang.”

What’s next for these students?

Despite the challenges that 2020 brought, the graduates are looking toward the future.

Miura said that despite everything going on, she has still committed to attend the University of Portland, which still plans to offer in-person classes in the fall. But since much is still uncertain, that could change at any time.

“One of the things that’s been getting me through this is knowing that this will all have to end someday,” Miura said. “Looking forward to starting college is helping me hold onto that.”

Aurello has been uncertain about her college choice, but said her goal of being a teacher is motivation to continue her post-high school education.

Both Madiam and Andrewson-Aitogi are enlisting in the Air Force, although Madiam said COVID-19 has made the application process a little slower.

Stone will study biology at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

Ugalde will attend Hawaii Pacific University in the fall, where he hopes to play baseball.

“With this COVID-19, it still hasn’t changed my decision on going to college and live life,” he said. “I’m just going to live it a little more carefully and cherish it a little more. …”

“To all the seniors out there, we can still make it big in the real world,” Madiam said. “Don’t let anything, not even something like this (stop you) from pursuing your dreams.

“And to the underclassmen, I hope you guys don’t take your time in school for granted, because now we can see it get taken away in an instant.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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