‘It was so surreal’: The Class of 2020 looks back at the lost spring of COVID-19 in Butler County

Schools throughout Butler and Warren counties got creative to hold graduation ceremonies in 2020 with COVID-19 precautions.

The losses from last spring’s many canceled high school senior activities due to the coronavirus still sting, local members of the Class of 2020 said.

And they have advice for this year’s senior class as they approach their final spring: Don’t take anything for granted.

Almost a year ago, schools in Ohio and across the nation began to see government-ordered shutdowns as America scrambled to deal with the onset of the largest global pandemic since the early 20th Century’s Spanish Flu.

Dozens of traditional spring-time high school activities, including some unique to seniors who were in the final months of their K-12 school careers, were called off along with in-person classes.

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Looking back, Fairfield High School graduate Jabari Ashford said the makeshift graduation ceremony with only immediate family and held outside in the Fairfield Stadium was “a little barren.”

Prior to the coronavirus spreading, Ashford had looked forward to receiving his diploma in the traditional raucous and joyful atmosphere of a big crowd, indoor ceremony along with hundreds of his Fairfield classmates.

“I did want to do that and it’s sad I didn’t get the chance to,” said the freshman at the University of Cincinnati.

There is plenty of sadness to go around, said Monroe High School graduate Mayalina Albaddawi, and some of the realities of the pandemic were so overwhelming for seniors last spring that they didn’t hit home until late in the school year.

“It was so surreal and unexpected. At first I was numb to it because I couldn’t grasp on to the idea my senior year was taken away from me,” said Albaddawi, who is now a freshman at Miami University.

“I wasn’t going to get my last prom and all the memories I would have made,” she said, adding the emotional impact kicked in when she watched a student-made video last spring of pre-pandemic memories.

“It hit me really hard and I actually started crying. I went from feeling nothing to feeling upset, angry, heart-broken and especially cheated,” she said.

But the emotional pain lessened with time.

“I finally realized I’m not going through this alone and no matter how hard things get, I’m not the only one dealing with this pandemic,” said Albaddawi.

Forever wounds for the Class of 2020

The mental health toll of last year’s shutdown of schools, especially on seniors, was sizable, said Tracy Ashford, mother of Jabari and a veteran guidance counselor at Fairfield High School.

“What we’re learning is the uncertainty of everything had a greater impact than really was first recognized. Students and staff members are still trying to navigate through uncertainty,” she said. “And many of the students are not yet realizing the impact and its a weight on them.”

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Area schools are working hard to return some normalcy to this year’s seniors. Many plans are in the early stages for conducting a traditional spring semester as close to pre-coronavirus times as possible.

These include proms but with no dancing and more outdoor events, senior day activities and another round of modified graduation ceremonies similar to last year when some districts conducted drive-through diploma handoffs or commencements in school parking lots.

Ohio school officials are awaiting updated health guidelines before signing off on many proposed activities.

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One common thread throughout the region’s school officials is sympathy for their high school seniors as the second consecutive class to deal with the pandemic.

“It’s important to recognize that the fear and isolation associated with the pandemic is taking its toll on our students, staff, and community,” said Talawanda Schools Superintendent Ed Theroux.

There was no playbook for dealing with coronavirus and schools last spring, he said. This year there is the experience of the spring of 2020 to build on.

“We will incorporate the many things we’ve learned during this stressful experience, along with strategies to help our students heal from the trauma of the pandemic,” said Theroux.

Monroe High School Principal Tom Prohaska said “the pandemic has taught us a lesson in thinking outside of the box.”

“As we enter this spring and all the traditional events and celebrations for the class of 2021, we are working hard to find a plan with our local health department’s approval to give our seniors an opportunity to safely celebrate together as a class,” said Prohaska.

Dirk Allen, spokesman for Badin High School in Hamilton, said officials remain steadfast in emphasizing safety.

“We were very creative during a difficult time during the fourth quarter of 2020, and tried to do whatever we could to send the class off with some positive memories. This year, yes, the governor has begun to open things back up and we are looking carefully at what large group events we might be able to do safely,” said Allen.

“The virus is still out there and we need to be vigilant - but we are certainly hopeful that things like prom, baccalaureate and commencement can occur in a way that supports the student interests as well as their ongoing good health.”

Current Fairfield senior Ryan Nelson said he and classmates learned from living through the spring school closures as juniors in 2020.

“It (pandemic) was one of those things were forced to handle and we saw how to endure it ourselves. But a lot things are still not the same as before,” said Nelson.

The previous class of seniors has advice for this spring’s graduating class as they finish the school year.

Badin 2020 graduate Nathan Schuster, now a Miami student, would suggest they “keep the perseverance of school work up” despite the sometimes fluctuating hybrid class schedules and other changes.

“Remember, you need to graduate. Stay on top of your grades and finish the year strong and make the most of it.”

And former Monroe graduate Albaddawi said “enjoy it while it lasts and enjoy what you have right now because you can’t predict the future.”

COVERING COVID-19

It has been nearly a year since the major wave of Ohio orders that shut down many businesses and limited community activities because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Journal-News has used reporters in our communities to cover every aspect of the pandemic, from the heroes to the victims to the changes in life. This month, we’ll be reporting important stories about the impact of the pandemic and the future because of it.

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