SALT LAKE CITY — Cameron Burke, 17, gets together with friends online for a couple of hours most nights, their peals of laughter lighting up several homes at once.

But that burst of camaraderie doesn’t stop her from being miserable sometimes when she’s “at school” online or when she contemplates what’s missing in this, her senior year. 

She misses hugging friends. She even misses classmates with whom she’s not so close, like the boy who annoys her or random students she passes in the halls. She was just getting “good-ish” at lacrosse when the brakes slammed on spring sports and schools emptied unexpectedly because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t even remember the last day that I went to school because it was just a regular day. It’s shocking that it just stopped and there’s no real closure,” Burke said.

She even wishes she’d been able to tell the building, Park City High School, goodbye.

Students in Utah and across the nation struggle to engage with classes from a distance, learning at home because most everyone’s been grounded by COVID-19. They’re missing much-anticipated school trips, final proms, sporting events, yearbook signing and perhaps even graduation ceremonies.

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Amanda McNab, licensed clinical social worker with University of Utah’s Crisis and Diversion Services, said seniors — who will likely not experience rituals that usually culminate K-12 years — are experiencing grief.

“I think grief is an OK word to use when you look at the fact that grief is about processing a loss. For these kids, they’ve been promised that there’s going to be this big celebration after they’ve been in school for so long. This is really a rite of passage that we have ritual around, and now they don’t get to participate in that. It’s a big letdown,” she said.

For students not moving on to postsecondary education, this could be the only graduation, said McNab. Conceivably, some students will complete their requirements, have a virtual graduation and receive a diploma by mail. 

They don’t get closure, McNab said, because they’re suddenly thrown out into the world: “Well, you’re done.” 

No road map

The Class of 2020 has no path to follow.

People can usually point to others who emerged from traumatic situations — wars, recessions, depressions. There’s no example of a global health crisis that closed businesses and schools and sent people home, paired with large-scale economic crisis. So as seniors struggle with loss of certain milestones at school, they are immersed in a world that not only feels, but is uncertain. They worry they’ll get sick or lose someone they love. Some are watching parents and others lose financial footing.

“This is completely unprecedented in so many ways, so it’s not just that adolescents haven’t seen anyone go through it — their parents haven’t seen anyone go through it. There’s no one in their peer group they might be able to talk to. Unprecedented is not strong enough to describe how unusual this really is,” said Anna Gassman-Pines, associate professor of public policy, psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.

These teens verging on adulthood may need the expected and familiar, like normal school activities, more than ever. They won’t get it.

Gassman-Pines said her research and other studies show adolescent mental health suffers amid economic uncertainty. It’s worse when a parent loses a job, but “adolescents are still affected even when people outside their immediate family are the ones affected by the crisis.” 

She said national student surveys link crises with risk-taking behaviors and depressive or even suicidal thoughts. That’s in a typical economic downturn. It’s hard to say how much more worrisome the current situation might be.

Burke, who plans to major in biology and environmental science, said some students are also worried about financial aid for college. Lots of students’ parents have lost jobs and completed financial aid applications might not reflect that.

Plus, this crisis has skewed important rites that mark life transitions, like graduations.

“I think it’s completely developmentally appropriate for them to be feeling grief over the loss of those ceremonies and markers,” said Gassman-Pines.

“The big events — their prom, spring sports, athletic camps, out-of-state travel to different events, Lego robotics — all the different clubs have some sort of big event or competition that was canceled. They are missing out on all these things,” said B.J. Weller, Canyons School District’s director of responsive services. 

“A lot were holding out hope to be able to return.” 

Weller noted the pandemic has created gigantic upheaval to multiple aspects of life for kids and their families.

Savannah Stacey talks on Wednesday, April 15, 2020, at her West Bountiful home about losing the rest of her senior at Bountiful High School due to COVID-19. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Missing and mourned

Savannah Stacey has been talking about a coveted senior choir trip to San Diego to sing at a Padres game for a couple of years. It was canceled. So was her trip to the regional theater competition. She and nine other Bountiful High students had been practicing “The Diary of Anne Frank” for months. Plans she and her best friend had for senior prom are gone, too. 

She said she cries for a few minutes every day. 

“I think one of the worst parts about losing the end of my senior year is that it’s nobody’s fault,” she said.

“Nobody can fix it.”

She describes it as a “truly unexpected loss.” 

For student-athletes, the announcement that in-person school was called off was compounded with news that the spring sports season was canceled.

“There’s this idea of now what am I supposed to do? I can’t even participate in the things that make me happy. I can’t participate in something that I feel good about and I’m stuck at home — still,” McNab said.

Even students who know one another casually need the opportunity to say goodbye, she said.

“These kids may know people by sight, they may be friendly with them but they’re not the ones that they hang out with on Friday night. They still want to say goodbye to those people and it’s very awkward to randomly go up to somebody or contact them somehow and say, ‘Hey, I know we weren’t friends, but I just want to say good luck with your life.’ At a graduation, you can do that and it’s not awkward or weird,” McNab said.

Rituals are also important because predictability makes humans feel safe, she said.

“If we’re talking about graduation, you work hard, you get the grades and you have a celebration that you’ve reached that. It’s a predictable course. There may be bumps in the road … but you know this is how things work,” she said.

Predictable rituals may be especially important for students who’ve been feeling earthquakes and aftershocks since mid-March.

McNab said COVID-19, earthquakes and other changes create a sense of chaos, “so people are going to hold on to what is comforting to them and ritual can be comforting.” 

Malcom Starr, a senior at Bingham High School, had planned to attend prom a couple of weeks ago.

“That would have been my last one and I wasn’t able to go to that,” he said. Other cherished traditions for Bingham’s senior class have been scrubbed, too, such as the dinner-dance and a scavenger hunt for seniors.

Starr, who has competed in Ultimate Frisbee, also mourned when the spring sports schedule was cut short.

He said he understands why school needed to be called off in March, but believes extending the soft closure until the end of the school year was premature.

“Even if we go week by week, there’s no guarantee school ever opened again, right? We can’t endanger people. But I would feel a lot better if they say, ‘Sometime this summer when things get better, we’ll try and hold a dance or we’ll officially have a graduation for you guys or a senior graduation party.’ ... I feel like that would help a lot of people get through this,” he said.

Laura Summerfield, a senior at Rowland Hall, was on the school’s softball team. Their season was shut down temporarily, then canceled.

Coach Kathy Howa said she wept when she heard the news because too few girls came out to field a softball team last year. This year was a fresh start.

“I’m clearly rather disappointed, but we had a good three weeks, you know. I mean we played three games and as much as that’s a rather small fraction of what a normal season would be, I thought our team was just such a great group of people that it was just really fun to hang out with them regardless,” Summerfield said.

Even annual awards presentations at schools have been canceled due to the pandemic. When Cynthia Phan won the statewide Deseret News/KSL General Sterling Scholar competition, the announcement was made via email instead of during a formal ceremony.

Award programs at schools couldn’t be held, either. The students say it feels like the sorrows are piling up. 

“It’s hard to cope, especially since I know that there are harder things going on in the world, so I feel guilty for being so heartbroken over this,” said Stacey, who plans to go to Weber State for a semester, then on a church mission.

Suzanne Johnson, Stacey’s mom, admits she cried over her daughter’s disappointment. “You want the celebrations for them and with them. You’ve gone through it with them, too: watched them fall, saw the successes, watched the growing and learning. To have that taken away is a grief to me.”

Proactive seniors

“I thought we’d be out a little bit, then go back to normal,” said Burke, who describes herself as “a really social person.” Her brother, more introverted, is handling online school better, she said, while extroverts struggle. “He says he’s thriving,” she said.

Burke is surprised how much she misses physical interaction. “It is like having a long-distance relationship with everyone that you have ever had contact with.”

She mostly sees her boyfriend online; if they go for a walk, they have to stay far apart. “It’s difficult to maintain a relationship, because even though you can still talk to him, there’s nothing new to talk about except for coronavirus. And who wants to talk about that all day?” 

Starr, too, finds online instruction hard.

“I haven’t really enjoyed the online school that’s replaced our normal schooling. I feel like it’s a lot easier to get behind or to not really put effort into assignments, and I feel like it’s harder to learn,” he said.

When in-school classes were dismissed in mid-March, Starr said he had hoped the regular schedule would resume in a matter of weeks. He hoped school would reopen, even if just for a couple of weeks. “I was really confused. Why were they making this decision so early when that’s still a month and a half away?”

He started an online petition asking state officials to reconsider extending the soft closure of Utah schools and instead review conditions weekly. 

Almost 1,400 people signed his petition as of Thursday, including students and parents, some of whom added poignant comments about their own sorrow on their kids’ behalf. Some called the decision to close schools unnecessary.

Creating celebrations

Bryce Dunford, president of the Jordan School District Board of Education, said school administrators and the school board want graduating seniors to have a memorable send-off.

“We are very aware of what’s being taken away and the challenges that they’re facing. We have every intention of doing something,” he said.

First, public health authorities must establish guidelines on how people can safely gather, he said.

“Once we know the parameters — ‘Here’s the box you can operate in’ — we are going to be as creative as we possibly can. We’re going to seek input from students, from parents, from school leaders. We have every intention of doing everything that we can do,” Dunford said.

There could be summer tournaments for spring sports that were canceled and maybe opportunities for musical performances or school plays that got dropped.

“We want it to be memorable. We’ve talked about postponing it. We’ve talked about a parade-type thing where they walk down the street and people can spread out and wave,” he said.

David Styler, Millard School District superintendent, said he’s considered postponing graduation ceremonies into summer and even holding a junior prom for Delta High School students.

“We want to fill in for those things that have been lost to the best of our abilities. But it’s just hard to know how to address that because no one knows the timing,” he said.

“I would want our seniors right now to know that school leaders, state leaders, are all very much aware of the emotional impact this has on them and their families. We don’t have all the answers, but we are working to try to problem-solve and navigate this and they’re at the forefront of our minds,” Weller said.

Summerfield acknowledged that she would feel cheated if she doesn’t have a traditional ceremony with her classmates.

She joked maybe she and Head of School Alan Sparrow could “fake shake hands at the same time” over Zoom, but said she’d much rather do it in person.

The future

Weller said some students have accepted changes and are doing well, while others struggle to get out of bed. He said some may need professional counseling if they fall into deep depression or exhibit other signs they’re struggling heavily. 

“I think the biggest thing that individuals can do right now is recognize and appreciate that these are uncertain times for everybody and they’re not going through this alone. There are things we can do. We need to give ourselves permission to have some worries, to live with some of the uncertainty but not get so hyperfocused and catastrophizing about what’s happening,” he said.

He noted routines help and students should focus on what they can control rather than what they can’t or what they lost. 

Finding things to be grateful for is a good remedy for those in a worry cycle, he said.

Weller loves a video made by student body presidents around the state, directed at the senior class. “We’ve got this. Going forward, we know we can do hard things,” he said. “What a great message. Attitude is everything.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said the video gives hope to both students and adults.

She said district and charter schools have been planning virtual graduation ceremonies “should this day occur.” 

Great ideas abound and she hopes students will share their ideas for graduation, too. “They’re some of our most creative talent. I know that our kiddos can lean in with their school leaders and come up with ways that they can celebrate their many accomplishments,” Dickson said.

The broader community also wants to help the Class of 2020 celebrate.

Jordan Landing, a retail, dining and entertainment center in West Jordan, has offered to display names and images of high school and college graduates on its electronic sign on Bangerter Highway. 

“Although it isn’t much, we would like to honor your accomplishments. ... This way, you, your friends and family can celebrate your success while social distancing,” marketing director Becky Pugmire wrote on the center’s Facebook page.

The first day, 175 people submitted images and more are coming in, including from Granite District’s Hartvigsen School, which serves students who have special needs or are medically fragile. 

How to cope

McNab said it’s OK for teens to be upset about this and their feelings should be validated. Youths need to feel the support of their families, friends and communities, even as they have to follow the rules that keep everyone safe, like social distancing.

Fortunately, many kids will bounce back from this temporary setback, she said. They will feel bad and then move on.

“It’s the ones that get stuck on it that we then have to look at. What was the meaning behind this? Because it’s honestly probably not about graduation, but what graduation represented to them,” McNab said.

While kids are genuinely grieving, Gassman-Pines said they — and their parents — should remember that while mental health problems do arise in adolescents and can be very serious, most will not have mental health problems.

“Even if they are grieving and worried right now, there is reason to think that over time, they will be resilient.”