August 12, 2020

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Diplomas under duress

Students face a host of academic and personal challenges in a normal Grade 12 year; add the fear, upheaval and uncertainty of a global pandemic into the mix and the result, for many, is one sad grad

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Ethan Sinclair has a bit of writer’s block. A nominee for valedictorian, he’s trying to figure out how to write an inspirational speech about what it’s like to graduate high school during a global pandemic.

The past three months have given the soon-to-be West Kildonan Collegiate alum plenty of time to think about what it means to be a member of the Class of 2020 — an unfortunate group of students who have had their extracurricular activities cancelled, exams called off and graduation parties postponed because of COVID-19.

And just days away from giving his speech to a teacher jury, Sinclair hasn’t quite found the words yet.

Grade 12 West Kildonan Collegiate student Ethan Sinclair poses in his grad suit in the school’s science lab.  (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Grade 12 West Kildonan Collegiate student Ethan Sinclair poses in his grad suit in the school’s science lab. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Other soon-to-be-grads have some ideas:

"This year has been overwhelming for most of us," says Efrel Cabaguio, a senior at St. James Collegiate. "I think we, as a Class of 2020, are a generation of individuals who are pivotal."

Jasmine Do, a senior at Seven Oaks Met School, describes the end of her high-school years as surreal.

For Umar Awan, it was "devastating" when he and his classmates at J.H. Bruns Collegiate learned their in-person school year was over in March.

"I’ll remember this year by work and the things I could’ve done that I didn’t get to do. It’s not all horrible, but it also is kind of horrible," says Reagan Hofer, who will graduate from River East Collegiate at the end of the month.

Reagan Hofer purchased her jewelled ballroom gown for grad last October. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Reagan Hofer purchased her jewelled ballroom gown for grad last October. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

The Class of 2020, according to Westwood Collegiate student Josh Bond, simply has "bad luck."

A keen student, Sinclair is motivated to piece together a speech that both addresses the pandemic’s impact on the group’s rite of passage and inspires his classmates as they ponder what comes next.

And for many, that’s uncertain, as universities and colleges plan for indefinite distance learning, and job prospects remain in limbo.

At the same time, he faces another rite of passage, one speechwriters have struggled with forever.

"I don’t want it to be too cliché," says Sinclair, 18. "I want it to be different and stand out for itself."

 


 

Grade 12 is loaded with challenges at the best of times: the stresses of taking exams and filing assignments on deadline; testing face soaps and scrubs to treat teenage acne; trying to figure out what comes next after posing for pictures in a graduation cap and gown.

After the pandemic was declared, the Class of 2020 was forced to face those trials and tribulations, and more, including legitimate concerns for their physical and mental health and their loved ones’ well-being, without the in-person support of their teachers, friends and guidance counsellors.

"It doesn’t feel real that we’re actually graduating in a pandemic and we’re living through this," says Do, 17, during a recent afternoon interview in an empty classroom in her Maples school.

Jasmine Do, a student at Seven Oaks Met School, says it feels unreal that the students are graduating during a global pandemic. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Jasmine Do, a student at Seven Oaks Met School, says it feels unreal that the students are graduating during a global pandemic. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

From Zoom classes to a drive-thru convocation ceremony planned for her class later this month, Do says 2020 looks unlike anything she could have possibly anticipated.

In Manitoba, upwards of 18,000 high school seniors pivoted to distance learning in mid-March. Since then, they’ve also been bombarded with the cancellations of all of the things that make the academic and social challenges of high school worthwhile.

Their convocation ceremonies and graduation dances — plans that have been 13 years in the making — have either been altered to adhere to social-distancing protocols or postponed until autumn in the hopes that chief provincial health officer Dr. Brent Roussin will have increased the cap on group gatherings by then.

For the time being, hair and nail appointments have been scratched and formal suits and dresses collect dust in closets. A light blue frock in Do’s room is a reminder of a pre-pandemic outing with friends, trying on countless styles in downtown shops.

Across the city, Morgan Hupalo’s custom-made teal two-piece is still unfinished; the pandemic slammed the brakes on the design process. She says that reality has drained her excitement for Sisler High School’s now-postponed festivities, which she has been helping plan since last fall.

Morgan Hupalo, Sisler High School (Supplied)

Morgan Hupalo, Sisler High School (Supplied)

The student and parent committees that organize the annual safe grad events at Sisler and other Winnipeg schools were planning menus, decor, security, wristbands and a gender-neutral bathroom setup at the Fairmont when COVID-19 arrived.

"All the seniors feel robbed of their school years," says Hupalo, 18, adding she wanted to dress up for grad and convocation and, after the latter, throw her graduation cap in the sky along with all of her classmates. Having watched that scene dozens of times in coming-of-age movies, it’s one moment she’s looked forward to experiencing first-hand, for what feels like forever.

"We often associate grief with someone dying; grief can also occur for non-death losses: loss of sports teams, seeing friends, jobs and loss of those milestones and rites of passages," says Carrie Arnold, an assistant professor of thanatology — the scientific study of death — at King’s University College, an affiliate of Western University in London, Ont.

Arnold says it’s important not to dismiss or minimize a student’s legitimate grief response, whether it’s sadness or anger or something else, surrounding the disruptions to their end-of-year celebrations.

Instead, she encourages family members, educators and friends of graduates to validate students’ feelings, reassure them the pandemic is temporary and discuss with them how the experience will boost their resilience.

Samantha Houzon, Hupalo’s mother, says families of graduates are also grappling with how COVID-19 has affected the milestone.

"It’s hard for parents because (students) have gone to school for 13 years, but we’ve gotten them to school," says Houzon, who is co-chair of Sisler’s parent safe grad committee.

“From the minute you step into your kindergarten class, the end goal has always been you walk across the stage in Grade 12, so from a parent standpoint, I just hope they’re willing to do anything and everything possible to give them that experience." –Samantha Houzon

Sitting beside her daughter on their front porch, Houzon expresses how important she feels it is that all members of the Class of 2020 can walk across a stage of some sort, even in a field or in small groups.

"From the minute you step into your kindergarten class, the end goal has always been you walk across the stage in Grade 12, so from a parent standpoint, I just hope they’re willing to do anything and everything possible to give them that experience, however we have to do it," she says.

Amid so much uncertainty, students’ expectations for their final year have had to change drastically in a very short time.

Josh Bond, Westwood Collegiate (Supplied)

Josh Bond, Westwood Collegiate (Supplied)

"If there’s anything I could say to the Class of 2020, it would be to keep your chins up. It’s tough, but it can’t be helped," says Westwood Collegiate’s Bond, adding he doesn’t like to complain about the situation he has come to terms with, choosing positivity instead.

Egocentricity is common among adolescents who experience grief, meaning they often feel like they are isolated in their experiences, Arnold says. And students may also feel guilt for being upset about a dance being cancelled as the total number of COVID-19 deaths rises.

"It’s OK to feel your own losses; those things don’t cancel each other out," she says. "There’s room for all of those losses to be legitimate."

 


 

Vanessa Navarro had been away from school for so long that when she returned to Maples Met School to clear out her locker at the end of May, the Grade 12 student blanked on her combination. It took 15 minutes of failed attempts and a panicked phone call to jolt her memory.

Vanessa Navarro, who danced and did figure skating throughout her formative years, poses in her grad dress with her skates in the family’s yard. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Vanessa Navarro, who danced and did figure skating throughout her formative years, poses in her grad dress with her skates in the family’s yard. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

When she looks back on her graduating year, it will be harder to forget the first day in-person classes were officially suspended, initially for a three-week period that included spring break.

It was March 23, her 18th birthday.

"Winter doesn’t even shut it down; snow doesn’t even shut it down," Navarro says, recalling how shocked she was to learn schools were closing.

The disruptions were announced, one after the other, in the hours, days and weeks after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a severe global health crisis. The first positive test in Manitoba was confirmed one day later, on March 12, and it wasn’t long before high-school events were affected.

It was weeks into distance learning when Navarro came to terms with the reality of the situation.

"I felt unmotivated to finish the school year because everything was falling apart," she says, adding that as a student who works best with peers, she’s found home-learning to be a challenge.

Drayton Myran, one of Navarro’s classmates at the Jefferson Avenue high school, feels much the same way. To his dismay, Myran, 18, is finishing both his courses and his internship with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights from afar.

Drayton Myran, Maples Met School (Supplied)

Drayton Myran, Maples Met School (Supplied)

He says he isn’t excited about the prospect of more online learning in psychology and criminal justice courses at the University of Winnipeg in September. Until then, he’s trying to focus on finding ways to celebrate with his friends, all of whom are headed in different directions, in a socially distant fashion.

"I’m just very sad that I won’t be able to share the (Seven Oaks School Division) grad powwow with my best friends," says Myran, a member of Long Plain First Nation. "They might not be Indigenous themselves and they might not understand the culture as much, but I want to share it with them as much as I can."

The annual celebration, which brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous students across the division in the northwest corner of the city, was replaced with an online video celebrating the Class of 2020 this year.

The premature end of 2019-20 school clubs and sports are also among the long list of cancelled events.

A Miles Macdonell Collegiate Buckeye, Bella Seales says the seriousness of COVID-19 set in once she learned her final high-school basketball season would be cut short as a result of public-safety precautions.

Bella Seales, Miles Macdonell Collegiate (Supplied)

Bella Seales, Miles Macdonell Collegiate (Supplied)

In mid-March, the Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association announced all school sport activities would be put on hiatus indefinitely.

It was then — moments after Seales and her teammates played what would be their last game together, that their coach informed them the competition had been called off. Stunned, the tight-knit team gathered in a circle in the middle of the gymnasium floor to process it all with tears and talk.

"The world’s going to be different after this and I’m not sure what it’ll look like, but I think looking back on it, we’ll look back on how things were before," says Seales, who is enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program in the River-East Transcona School Division. The 17-year-old adds that she is worried about younger students who have lost out on learning during the pandemic.

The province has announced there will be remedial learning programming in 2020-21 to address the pandemic’s disruptions to Manitoba’s K-12 schools. Specific plans haven’t been announced, although the education minister has proposed an Aug. 31 start to the academic year and the conversion of some non-instructional school days to make up for a portion of the lost in-person instruction time.

For Grade 12s headed into post-secondary next year, the learning curve may also be steeper than ever before as colleges and universities prepare for widespread distance learning.

“The world’s going to be different after this and I’m not sure what it’ll look like, but I think looking back on it, we’ll look back on how things were before." –Bella Seales

A recent study of Canadian youths’ health and habits during the pandemic found students in Grade 12 and Cégep (post-secondary education students enrol in after high school and before university or college in Quebec) have been doing schoolwork less often than younger peers.

More than half of the older student cohort surveyed by the Association for Canadian Studies reported doing schoolwork less often. In comparison, 41 per cent of students in grades 9-11 reported feeling that way; 39 per cent of grades 5-8 students agreed.

The online survey collected answers from 1,191 Canadian students between the ages of 12 and 17 between April 29 and May 5; the margin of error is plus or minus three points.

That loss of motivation to finish the school year amid the chaos and cancellations is almost universal among the dozen seniors sharing their experiences with the Free Press.

"The last week of school was really weird; really, really weird. I didn’t realize... at the time, but now thinking about it, I’d do anything to go back," says Hofer, 18, during an interview in her backyard on the outskirts of Birds Hill Provincial Park — an ideal backdrop for a graduation photoshoot.

Since then, Hofer says many of her classmates at River East Collegiate have been looking for work or, for those with jobs, picked up more hours to pass the time and save some cash.

Reagan Hofer, a River East Collegiate graduated, poses in her dress at the family’s home. She plans to attend U of M in the fall. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Reagan Hofer, a River East Collegiate graduated, poses in her dress at the family’s home. She plans to attend U of M in the fall. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

She would have preferred to spend time with friends during grad breakfast, senior skip day and countless other end-of-year activities, but says it has been comforting to see some of them after being in isolation for weeks, even if only for a few minutes in her checkout line at Sobeys.

"I feel like we lost a lot of education because of the whole thing," says Hofer, adding not all teachers have mastered online instruction.

 


 

A graduation video screening at a drive-in theatre. A billboard outside a school featuring graduation portraits of the Class of 2020. A socially distant and weather-optimistic convocation in a local park.

These are only some of the ways high schools across Manitoba are honouring their graduates with public health protocols in place.

Maples Collegiate surveyed its students to find out what they wanted to do. Amanpreet Kaur, 17, says she submitted her support for postponing celebrations until October.

Amanpreet Kaur hopes Maples Collegiate will have a grad ceremony in the fall. (Supplied)

Amanpreet Kaur hopes Maples Collegiate will have a grad ceremony in the fall. (Supplied)

"In the beginning, I hoped this year should end and I’d graduate as early as possible," says Kaur, who moved to Winnipeg from India last summer and was nervous about fitting in. But she says she was ecstatic about being able to participate in Canadian convocation festivities with her new friends.

There are many more end-of-year graduation events here compared to India, she says.

Meanwhile, at J. H. Bruns Collegiate, students have been invited to collect their diplomas in groups of six friends, along with select family members.

The announcement came as a disappointment to Awan, 18, who had anticipated celebrating his and his twin brother’s grad with their extended family; there would have been about 25 in all at the now-cancelled convention centre ceremony.

"They’ve been supporting us the whole time — ever since kindergarten, they’re our main motivation," says Awan, who started a petition to ask school officials to postpone celebrations until autumn. He adds that convocation, safe grad and the subsequent photoshoots are "a big deal to us" and without them, there is no real closure.

Umar Awan, a student at J. H. Bruns Collegiate, says there isn’t real closure to high school without convocation, safe grad and the subsequent photoshoots. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Umar Awan, a student at J. H. Bruns Collegiate, says there isn’t real closure to high school without convocation, safe grad and the subsequent photoshoots. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Jen Watt, an assistant professor of education at the University of Manitoba, researches student well-being and "well-becoming" in schools. There are few rites of passage for young people during which they can celebrate a shift in identity and reflect, and that’s why Grade 12 convocation is so important, she says.

In addition to exercising and resting to overcome COVID-19 related stress, she says students need an opportunity to celebrate their achievements — pandemic notwithstanding — to maintain good mental health during this chaotic time.

"I really hope that everybody finds a way to mark the occasion in a way that’s best for them, whether it’s that chance to wear the dress or the suit, to connect with one another, to take the videos and the pictures and to send them and share them widely," Watt says.

Efrel Cabaguio, St. James Collegiate (Supplied)

Efrel Cabaguio, St. James Collegiate (Supplied)

Graduation also gives students the opportunity to give thanks and say goodbye to their favourite teachers, she says, adding that in the absence of traditional ceremonies, graduates and parents can express their gratitude electronically.

In west Winnipeg, Cabaguio has a St. James Collegiate grad sign on his front lawn.

While the 17 year old says this year has taken an emotional toll on him because he hasn’t experienced closure, he feels humbled to be part of the Class of 2020.

"This year was unforgettable," he says. "We’re part of history now."

 


 

The Class of 2020 has lived and learned during a pandemic. Now what?

Cabaguio, Navarro, Sinclair, Hofer, Do and Bond will all join the incoming freshman class at the University of Manitoba in nursing, kinesiology, mechanical engineering, commerce, bioengineering and general engineering, respectively.

Awan and Myran are going to U of W to study humanities.

Seales is headed to Providence University College to play basketball in September.

Hupalo plans to study hairstyling at Aveda Institute Winnipeg.

While Kaur hasn’t nailed down her next steps, she knows she wants to become an anesthesiologist.

As for Brennan Vaarmeyer, he will be working to save money to pay for post-secondary school and waiting until next year’s Winnipeg Rifles junior football season; he was recruited as a rookie, but the spring pre-season is among the long list of sport casualties in the city.

The workout gym at Garden City Collegiate is one of Brennan Vaarmeyer's favourite spaces at his high school. He plans on continuing to play football with the Winnipeg Rifles. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

The workout gym at Garden City Collegiate is one of Brennan Vaarmeyer's favourite spaces at his high school. He plans on continuing to play football with the Winnipeg Rifles. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

"In school, I never felt like it was real life, it was like a bubble, but once COVID came along, it popped it. I kind of got an introduction to reality," says the Grade 12 student at Garden City Collegiate.

If he could go back in time to the start of the school year, he’d stock up on hand sanitizer and tell himself not to stress out too much about exams this year, he says.

Sitting in the empty West Kildonan tech lab, Sinclair says he feels prepared for university thanks to his involvement in extracurricular activities throughout high school.

“In school, I never felt like it was real life, it was like a bubble, but once COVID came along, it popped it." –Brennan Vaarmeyer

While the highly anticipated Winnipeg high-altitude balloon competition was cancelled, Sinclair was able to design props for the school’s production of James and the Giant Peach and build a cardboard boat for an engineering competition before the pandemic.

"Nothing ever goes as planned," he says, in reference to both what he’s learned in the field of engineering so far and in life, generally, this year.

His team’s cardboard boat sank.

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh
Reporter

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.

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