With end-of-the-year school closures likely, LCHS seniors grieve loss of milestone events

La Cañada  High School commencement ceremony.
LCUSD officials promise to do what they can to salvage senior year for La Cañada High’s Class of 2020 amid a global coronavirus pandemic, but seniors are bracing for the worst.
(File Photo)

Last month was disappointing for La Cañada High School senior Carly Witteman, who’d been anticipating springtime school trips to New Orleans and England when district officials on March 11 suspended all out-of-state school-sponsored events during a burgeoning coronavirus pandemic.

From there, the hits kept coming — two days later physical school campuses were closed to allow for a transition to distance learning. No more choir concerts, no film festivals, no sporting events.

“In a matter of days, everything I was looking forward to or had plans for just totally disappeared,” said Witteman, who celebrated her 18th birthday earlier this month at her home.

Students were told they would not receive third-quarter grades as they and their teachers adapted to online-only education. Nationwide, AP testing would shift from a grueling hours-long slog to a 45-minute online, open-notes essay.

As closure periods were extended from late March to mid-April to early-May, the future became uncertain for seniors forced to shop for colleges online.

“We’re really struggling with college decisions, because we obviously can’t visit anywhere,” Witteman said. “I was planning on visiting schools, and I know a lot of people are in the same boat.”

Now, with La Cañada Unified School District officials poised to decide in an April 21 special meeting whether to follow a state recommendation to extend campus closures through the rest of the school year, beloved senior milestones like prom and graduation are on the chopping block.

In an April 9 letter to the LCUSD community, Supt. Wendy Sinnette said school board members planned to discuss at the meeting how best to salvage senior year for the Class of 2020.

“Both the district and LCHS are committed to making sure that these special events occur — even if alternatives need to be considered — because they are such an important part of honoring our seniors’ high school achievements,” Sinnette said.

A survey sent to La Cañada High seniors collected 208 responses on which senior events were most important and why, and whether teens would participate in virtual events or postponed celebrations in summertime.

About 63% of respondents said graduation was most important, indicating celebrating with friends and family was the most valued attribute of the traditional commencement ceremony. LCHS Principal Jim Cartnal acknowledged the importance of senior rituals.

“It’s the culmination of their primary and secondary schooling career, kind of a closing of this particular chapter of their life before they walk further down the path of being an adult,” Cartnal said.

The possible loss of prom, grad parties and senior farewell performances, on top of dealing with virus news and shelter-in-place restrictions, is a lot to bear for LCHS’ Matthew Baker, who for years has anticipated senior year’s many perks.

“We were just starting to enjoy all that. It’s like a carpet has been ripped out from under us,” he said of a seemingly endless stream of cancellations. “I haven’t completely gotten over it, but I realize it’s a thing that has to happen, and it’s keeping us safe.”

The 18-year-old plans to attend the University of Indiana’s Musical Theatre program and is optimistic other Class of 2020 fallout survivors in his freshman class may feel bonded by their shared, once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s one sliver of hope he’s still holding onto.

“I’m really looking forward to that,” Baker said. “I’m just praying they don’t cancel fall semester.”

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