‘It’s really heart-wrenching’: Newark high school seniors worry coronavirus will disrupt prom, graduation

Last week, Abrahim Kamara and a friend discussed a troubling scenario: What if schools remain closed for months?

“If that does happen, prom is definitely out of the question and graduation is in limbo,” said Kamara, a 12th grader at American History High School. “It’s really scary.”

As the coronavirus pandemic has scrambled the daily lives of Newark’s young people, shuttering their school buildings and forcing them to learn from bedrooms and kitchen tables, the disruption has hit the city’s roughly 2,500 high school seniors especially hard. Like other students, they’ve had to quickly adapt to remote learning amid the sudden separation from their classmates, teammates, and best friends, all while cooped up at home and fearful that they or their loved ones could catch the virus.

But the cloud of certainty caused by the statewide shutdown, which Gov. Phil Murphy said could last “weeks to months,” has put an extra strain on 12th graders. They must keep up with coursework and make weighty decisions about college and jobs while worrying that they could miss out on the touchstones of senior year: prom, the senior class trip, and walking across a stage to accept a hard-won diploma while family and friends cheer.

“You’re handed that diploma as your accomplishment and your first step toward something way bigger,” Kamara said. “So it’s really heart-wrenching if that gets taken away.”

Chalkbeat spoke with seniors at five Newark high schools about how they’re weathering this strange, stressful moment.

🔗Learning under quarantine

When Newark schools first shut their doors two weeks ago, Kutorkor Kotey welcomed the opportunity to sleep in and chill out. That didn’t last long.

Teachers quickly began posting assignments online and taking virtual attendance. Kotey, who attends Bard High School Early College, was soon spending 8-10 hours each day in her room completing school work.

“Even though we’re at home, I feel more stress now than when we were at school,” she said. “That’s the craziest thing.”

Kutorkor Kotey

Officials are trying to ensure that the disruptions do not knock seniors off track. The state said it will continue to review work portfolios submitted by seniors who did pass all the exams needed to graduate, and Superintendent Roger León said seniors can earn mandatory community services hours simply by staying home.

Yet several seniors said they’re anxious about keeping up with their courses and meeting graduation requirements now that classes have gone virtual. 

The sudden shift to online learning has been bumpy, students said, with certain teachers embracing new digital tools while others stick with email. And students, too, are still adjusting to virtual learning. When a Bard chemistry teacher tried hosting a class last week on Zoom, the online meeting platform, only two of about 30 students showed, said 12th grader Chelsea Ebinum.

Some students are distracted by family drama at home. Others are struggling to stay focused without a teacher standing over their shoulder, Ebinum said.

“It took me a while to say, ‘You’re still in school, you have to graduate, so you need to make the time and not just watch Netflix all day in your bed,’” she said.

Compared to a classroom, learning at home is tough, several students said. Instead of turning to a classmate or raising their hand to ask a question, students must now text or email and wait for a response. And while teachers have been posting assignments and giving feedback on Google Classroom, few have started using online tools to give lectures, students said.

“Google Classroom is still so limited,” said Yannick DeSouza, who goes to East Side High School. “Right now, it’s not like school.”

🔗New reasons to stress

The pandemic has stirred new anxieties in teenagers already straining under the usual pressures of high school.

Manuel Sosa-Garcia

Manuel Sosa-Garcia, the student council president at American History High School, worries about his parents, who continue to work at an industrial bakery even as the coronavirus has infected more than 16,600 New Jersey residents and caused nearly 200 deaths. He worries about maintaining his grades, which keeps him working late into the night. And he worries about the quarantine, which has left him isolated and restless, only leaving his house to take out the garbage.

“I’m over-stressed. My anxiety is building up,” he said. “I see the same beige walls all throughout the day.”

Latayvia Boyd hardly has time to consider the fate of prom or her senior trip at West Side High School. Instead, with her mother still going to work as a building concierge in Jersey City, Boyd has been looking after her four younger siblings.

“They want to go outside,” she said, “but the only place for them right now that’s safe is home.”

Simone Braithwaite, who goes to Science Park High School, recently learned that a friend’s mother tested positive for the virus. She shudders to imagine that happening to her own mother, who has a chronic illness and cares for Braithwaite’s younger brother. 

“If she gets sick, I don’t know what we’re going to do,” she said.

🔗Senior traditions on hold

The final stretch of senior year is normally a time to make lasting memories and plan for the future. Now, all that is on hold.

Seniors who have been admitted to multiple colleges and must decide where to enroll are realizing they won’t get to attend admitted-students’ days. Instead, they’ll have to make do with virtual tours.

“We won’t get a chance to be on campus and feel what it would be like if we went there,” said Yvette Tannor, a senior at Bard.

Chelsea Ebinum

Meanwhile, prom and graduation — rites of passage that mark the end of one journey and the beginning of another — remain up in the air. At a school board meeting last week, León said he would share revised prom plans with schools “if and when necessary.” For now, students only know that the statewide shutdown has halted any group events and Newark schools remain closed “until further notice.”

Friends text and FaceTime, doing their virtual best to stay upbeat.

“I’m trying to make this a positive thing,” said Chelsea Ebinum of Bard. “If I don’t, I’ll just go insane.”

But the possibility that they may not experience a graduation ceremony they spent years working towards weighs heavily on some students, including Manuel Sosa-Garcia, the American History student whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico and who will be the first in his immediate family to graduate from high school.

“As a first-generation from immigrant parents, I wanted to make my mother proud, make my grandmother proud, and everyone else who doubts immigrants,” he said. “But that opportunity vanished.”

Other students are holding out hope that buildings may yet reopen and end-of-high-school celebrations will go on. As Abrahim Kamara sees it, all he can do is focus on what he controls.

“I know I have to graduate,” he said. “So I’m just trying to roll with the punches and finish strong.”

Devna Bose contributed reporting.

This article answers questions raised by our readers. Share your coronavirus-related questions, concerns, and ideas by emailing us at community@chalkbeat.org, and keep up with our reporting on COVID-19 here.