My oldest daughter is a senior, and I have been blessed to spend every day with her at school since she was a seventh grader. As we approached the last few months of her high school career, I couldn’t wait to share in those “senior moments” that create memories that last a lifetime. Unfortunately, the reality, enormity, and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is more evident as every day passes and those events on our school calendars move from “postponed indefinitely” to “canceled.” My heart breaks.
Old and New Traditions
This time of year is often exciting and exhilarating for staff, students, and parents. Seniors are wrapping up their high school careers and preparing to move on to the next stage in life. Tears are shed, smiles are shared, and memories are made. But what happens when important school events don’t happen? Unfortunately, this is the world we are currently living in.
While each day seems to bring about more bad news and extended cancellations, it is the hope so many people share that will get us through this. Just as teachers have adapted to a new system of educating our students, principals and school staff will undoubtedly get creative to ensure those traditional memory-making events and ceremonies still take place.
Social media has helped educators connect with our students and maintain some normalcy in a highly chaotic world. I have no doubt that creative solutions will be developed to honor our students through the various events that we are missing, such as honors nights, concerts, and ultimately graduation ceremonies. It may not be in a fashion we are accustomed to, but our students deserve these moments, and who knows what new traditions will evolve out of these unprecedented times.
Virtual Events and In-Person Honors
Like many schools across the country, the staff at Milford High School is planning on hosting virtual events such as honors night, prom, and graduation. Radio, newspaper, and TV spots have also been created with the support of our local community. Yard signs have been ordered, and local businesses are posting messages of congratulations and encouragement for our seniors.
A parade of graduates is also being discussed under the guidance and regulations provided by our local health department. Ultimately, our goal is to still be able to host an in-person graduation ceremony when crowd limitations are eased, as our seniors deserve to be honored for their 13 years of hard work.
Our ‘Next Greatest Generation’
What also gives me hope is our students who have been forced, at a young age, to take on so many additional responsibilities while they aren’t physically at school. Many now are relied upon to fill the role of student, parent, teacher, or caregiver while their parents go to work each day to continue to provide for their families. They didn’t ask for this, but they have adapted in a short time to the new normal we are all living.
I have said for years—and it holds more true today than ever before—we are seeing the next greatest generation grow right before our eyes. Our students understand the value of caring, compassion, and empathy, and they will use these traits to meet the ever-changing needs of our communities, nation, and world.
No context exists for what has been thrust upon us this past month. Never has all of humanity come to a grinding halt, all at the same time, with no clear end date as to when it will be over. It is confusing. It is frustrating. It is exhausting. But most of all, it is heartbreaking.
We are all grieving, and our emotions should—and need to—reflect this. As I met with our senior class via Zoom, I assured them that it is okay to be angry, mad, or upset. It is also okay to feel cheated as a part of their childhood has been taken away by an invisible force that is sweeping across the world. However, as with any loss, it is important to grieve appropriately, and it is vital for them to reach out to those they trust and love to help them through this. This holds true for adults as well.
I long for the day when I can high five a student in the hallway or supervise a cafeteria full of seventh and eighth graders. But most importantly, I long for the day I get to call each senior by name as they walk across the stage, receive their diplomas, and stop next to the podium for a hug and an “I love you.” However, until that moment comes, we will find creative ways to maintain those connections and relationships with our students and staff while providing support for our schools and our communities as a whole.
Public schools are the lifeblood of our communities, and that has never been more exemplified than it has over the past month as we are called upon to provide basic needs. Our “why” doesn’t change in a time of great need, only the way we live out that “why” does.
Someday we will all be able to hopefully look back and not only shed a tear or two, but also a smile because this happened. But until that time comes, there are vital questions we need to keep asking ourselves. How are you ensuring the emotional well-being of our students and staff? What does the continuity of an education plan look like for all students in an online format? How do you plan to honor your students, especially seniors, who will miss out on many of the memory-making events? How are you meeting the needs of your larger school community? What support do you need as a principal, husband/wife, son/daughter, caregiver, mentor, friend? Take care of your loved ones and yourself as, now more than ever, we need each other.
Brandon Mowinkel is the principal at Milford Jr/Sr High School in Milford, NE, where he has spent his entire career, having previously served as the industrial technology teacher and an assistant principal. He is the 2017 Nebraska High School Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter (@bmowinkel).