'Plans but also hope' for high school traditions

In Douglas County, seniors mourn lost milestones, learn life lessons amid pandemic

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When Kayla Schilffarth was in elementary and middle school, peers bullied her. At school dances, children made fun of her for not having a date, she said. No one would dance with her.

“Those were really hard times for me because people didn't like me and I didn't know why,” she said.

Although difficult to experience, Schilffarth credits the bullying for making her tough. This year, she found a dance partner, a prom date who likes her for who she is, she said. The 18-year-old senior at Castle View High School in Castle Rock could not wait for her final high school dance.

“I was looking forward to having someone who genuinely cared for me and loved me,” she said, “and wanted to dance with me.”

Then COVID-19 reared its head in China, devastated Italy and reached the United States, where the pandemic gradually shut down life as America knew it.

Her prom is canceled, but the lost memories of her senior year don't end there. Schilffarth did not know that the last time she attended class, saw her teachers and walked her school's halls would be the last in her high school career. She did not get to say proper goodbyes.

Temporary school closures quickly extended to the remainder of her senior year. Now, Schilffarth is waiting to — hopefully — attend a postponed graduation ceremony this summer.

'They've been robbed'

The Douglas County School District is tentatively planning to hold in-person ceremonies for schools between June 23 and June 27.

If it is not safe to hold traditional ceremonies at that time, Superintendent Thomas Tucker said, the district has a backup date of July 22 when it would hold a relay of ceremonies at EchoPark Stadium.

“Our seniors have experienced a lot of emotions, from sadness to disappointment and fear, a fear for the future, fear and sadness on the loss of prom and potentially the loss of graduation, two very important time-honored traditions,” Tucker said. “They've been robbed.”

With rescheduling, families had to postpone celebrations. Some had to cancel travel plans, Tucker said. And there remains the constant uncertainty around COVID-19.

He wishes he could promise students the June dates will work out, but the virus remains too unpredictable to guarantee that, he said.

The district will continue watching how the nation progresses through the Trump administration's guidelines on the reopening of America — a three-phase plan that will follow public health experts' recommendations, according to the White House.

“I'm still very optimistic because the only thing we can have right now is, obviously, plans but also hope,” he said.

Schilffarth's principal, Rex Corr, is desperate to eventually hold longstanding traditional events the school puts on to honor seniors. He envisions dedicating a week closer to the rescheduled graduation ceremonies to recognizing the class of 2020.

Each year at Castle View kicks off with a senior breakfast at sunrise. Everyone gathers on a hill near the school, watches the sun rise and eats pancakes. The 2019-20 school year was no exception.

But the year is supposed to end with a senior sunset. Castle View orders catering, announces superlative awards — best dressed, most likely to rule the world — while seniors pass around yearbooks to sign. Then everyone watches the sunset together.

Corr has not given up hope the school can hold its senior sunset at a later date.

As plans hang in limbo, Corr said the school community is moving mountains to honor seniors now. A "small army of parent volunteers” was delivering yard signs to seniors' yards on April 17 to celebrate them.

“I want them to know that the faculty and staff of Castle View High School, all of our school community, Sabercat nation, remains committed to them,” Corr said, “and that we'll find ways to continue to honor their fantastic work.”

'Surreal and hectic'

As traditions in her senior year evaporated, Schilffarth turned to social media and posted her thoughts on a community Facebook page. The post racked up hundreds of likes as dozens of comments poured in, mostly supportive of 2020 seniors.

She used to say, “Gosh, I wish school was over,” she wrote, but now Schilffarth realizes how much she took school for granted. She told her fellow seniors they would be remembered as a class of fighters.

“Because one day we will look back on this and teach others to relish what they have and to love being able to walk into the movies or go into a classroom every day,” she wrote.

It also didn't take long for some people to post a commonly shared reaction to 2020 seniors' COVID-19 experience — that high school seniors of generations past had it worse, including those who served in World War II or lived through 9/11.

Tucker and Corr urged empathy for 2020 seniors.

“I certainly understand the sacrifices my generation and generations before mine had to make,” Tucker said. “I would simply say in a non-paternalistic way, only as an educator, and as a parent, we have to be careful to not minimize what our kids are feeling.”

Corr encouraged seniors to connect with “the advocate adults in their lives” and hoped they have someone who they can talk to.

Schilffarth said she's not looking for pity. She and other seniors only want “to feel like we're valid” in their hurt. After all, they've lost experiences they were told all their lives they'd get to have, she said.

And she does not want to paint herself as a victim of COVID-19, she said. The real victims are those who have died or lost jobs.

“People who experienced 9/11 and WWII, all those things are much more drastic than what I've experienced in my life,” she said, “but as of right now, this is the most surreal and hectic thing to have ever happened.”

A growing appreciation

Corr said the class of 2020 has “demonstrated incredible agility” in adapting to the unprecedented circumstances schools are being forced into by the pandemic. He watched with pride as Castle View's student government organized a spirit week on Instagram, seeing it as a sign of resiliency.

“I think that being able to find a path forward through adversity is an important life skill and making the very best of difficult circumstances is an important quality to possess,” he said.

Schilffarth said she'll carry lessons with her after the pandemic ends. She will never again take for granted walking into a restaurant, a classroom or having the ability to pursue her education.

“As a society we've kind of become spoiled by the fact that we have access to all of these really nice things,” she said. “It gives us a new perspective on the fact that not everybody had these opportunities and not everybody got to experience the stuff we got to experience, and we need to appreciate those things more.”

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