When Melanie Harrell was in sixth grade at Young Women’s Leadership Academy, the sight of the school’s first class of seniors donning graduation robes and pulling a senior prank made an indelible impression.

Almost six years later, Harrell’s class of 49 seniors planned their own pranks, joking that they could all bring their dogs to school. They planned a senior trip to a nearby lake house for a weeklong retreat. And they envisioned themselves in Laurie Auditorium, graduating in white caps and gowns.

But school closures have put many of these treasured lasts in jeopardy with some planned events for seniors canceled and others in limbo as state officials weigh whether to keep schools closed for the remainder of the school year.

San Antonio’s school districts have taken different approaches to adjusting for coronavirus’ complications: Somerset ISD announced it would postpone graduation until July, while North East ISD Superintendent Sean Maika has floated the idea of virtual graduations but offered no specifics.

No matter the backup plan, seniors like Harrell know their final semesters won’t be close to what they imagined.

“It feels like I’m never really going to finish my time at YWLA because I won’t have that experience,” said Harrell, who had a special reason to look forward to her graduation ceremony at Laurie Auditorium because her Haitian mother was sworn in as an American citizen there.

“Since I was little, I wanted to be that person at graduation with all the cords, all the medals, giving the speech. I hope I can still do it in some way, but nothing’s guaranteed.”

Graduation ceremonies in limbo

Sam Houston High School senior Aaliyah Davis also looked forward to the day she would wear white robes to graduation. Traditionally, Sam Houston seniors wear green ones, but the top 10 students earn the privilege of donning a special color to celebrate their academic achievement, she said. Davis took an array of AP classes to boost her GPA so she could wear those white robes.

At Highlands High School, senior Jagger Torres shared Davis’ anguish about working hard throughout high school only to see her vision for graduation dashed. Ranking in the top 10 percent of her class, she plans to attend the University of Central Oklahoma next fall to study biomedical engineering and physical therapy.

“I worked hard to get into the school of my dreams and for me to not get recognized, and for all of us to not be recognized, it hurts,” Torres said, acknowledging that graduation has not been officially canceled yet. “I need to know if I am going to have it or not. They [school officials] just keep drawing it out.”

Highlands High School senior Jagger Torres stands in her graduation uniform in front of her home. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Davis said it is important to celebrate accomplishments in person with her classmates, so she hopes SAISD doesn’t make graduation an online event of some kind.

In lieu of a live ceremony, Davis’ family will probably gather – once it is safe – to celebrate. But, Davis said, it won’t be quite the same.

‘The opportunity has missed you’

When Marc Mendiola sat on stage at South San High School’s graduation last spring, he didn’t know it could be the only one he would attend. A junior and student council president at the time, he was the event’s emcee.

Mendiola also attended prom with a friend last year and spent the night imagining the fun he would have alongside all his classmates when they were seniors. With prom unlikely to take place as planned, Mendiola feels lucky that he got to experience a bit of what he might now miss out on because of the coronavirus shutdowns. But there are some experiences he’ll never get to have.

The senior class learns of everyone’s plans for the following fall at Decision Day, when students declare their next step. The event takes place late in the spring semester and Mendiola was going to announce his plan to attend Texas A&M University to study marketing.

South San High School’s 500 12th graders also planned to caravan to Austin’s Typhoon Texas water park. The trip was intended to give seniors the time to bond in their last weeks and get to know students who might be going to the same college, Mendiola said.

“It’s like the opportunity has missed you,” Mendiola said. “When we grieve over these things on social media, some people tell us to stop being babies. We understand their perspective, but this is something that connects with us and something that we lost that we had spent years looking forward to.”

Johnson High School senior Riley Robinson expressed a similar sentiment. Prom, initially scheduled for late March, was one of the first events to be canceled. Her boyfriend from California was set to fly in and she planned to wear a slim-fitting blue dress for the occasion. Instead, she and her boyfriend hope to still dress up and have Robinson’s mom take pictures of them in the backyard at a future date.

Instead of a ceremony celebrating the school’s summa cum laude graduates, Robinson’s photo was featured, along with those of other classmates achieving the honor, in a video the school posted online. She doesn’t think her dance spring show will go on as planned, nor will a breakfast for seniors at her former elementary school.

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“School has been my main motivation for 12 years,” Robinson said. “It’s really important for [seniors] to have closure and without that we’re just kind of stuck in a weird in-between place. I would tell [administrators] to fight as hard as they can” to find a way to hold milestone events for seniors, even if they need to be moved into the summer or fall.

Prom dresses never worn

Jefferson High School senior Gabrielle Cleveland was touring a college in Iowa with her mom when she found the perfect prom dress.

“If you put it under a disco ball, it would look like I would shine everywhere,” Cleveland said, describing the dress as form-fitting and long, flaring out mermaid-style at the bottom with beads and mesh on the bodice. Now the dress will hang in her closet, unworn.

While that thought makes Cleveland, who is currently stuck in Florida with her dad because of fears of travel during coronavirus’ spread, sad, there’s a sadder reality that many high school seniors are preparing for – the possibility that officials will decide not to open college campuses this fall.

The photo caption for this article has been updated to remove an incorrect reference to the Young Women’s Leadership Academy graduation ceremony. Most school districts have not yet announced whether graduation ceremonies will occur as scheduled.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.