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‘We wouldn’t shut down’: How the Class of 2020 is grappling with what was lost due to coronavirus

Whether they attend public school or private, come from the city or the suburbs, the members of the Class of 2020 have been forged by circumstances they never could have imagined. Here are some of their stories.

From left to right: Shawnee High School graduate Isabella Turner, Motivation High School graduate Myquel Wiley, and Pennsbury High School graduate Diya Cherian are among the members of the Class of 2020,  coming of age during a pandemic, against a backdrop of a clamor for racial justice.
From left to right: Shawnee High School graduate Isabella Turner, Motivation High School graduate Myquel Wiley, and Pennsbury High School graduate Diya Cherian are among the members of the Class of 2020, coming of age during a pandemic, against a backdrop of a clamor for racial justice.Read moreTHE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER / Staff Photographer

They are a class unlike any other: high school seniors coming of age during a pandemic, against a backdrop of a clamor for racial justice and a recalibration of the way the world works. Whether they attend public school or private, come from the city or the suburbs, the members of the Class of 2020 have been forged by circumstances they never could have imagined. Here are some of their stories, their hopes, their dreams, and the lessons they have taken from a most unusual senior year:

Christopher Casey, St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, Philadelphia

Christopher Casey lost his father during the summer between seventh and eighth grade. His mother, who had worked part-time when her four kids were growing up and who had no college degree, worried what would happen to her youngest. But then a friend from church suggested she send Chris to a school where he could receive strong male mentorship. Chris, who grew up in Cinnaminson, later earned scholarships to St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia, and the rest is history.

He graduated as a Latin scholar, a veteran of every Advanced Placement science course, a member of the ice hockey and rugby teams and school newspaper, andis headed to Amherst College on a full scholarship with dreams of studying biology and languages and becoming a doctor. His mom, naturally, has “cried 50 times” about the path his life has taken. “I come from a family of carpenters, HVAC guys, electricians, roofers, steam fitters,” said Chris. “There’s no doctors or lawyers. I was never groomed to go to a school like Amherst.”

Seizing every opportunity the Prep had to offer was key, and meant he got to spend time in Chile, work in a research lab at the Coriell Institute, and serve as a student leader in school clubs. He was going “100 miles an hour” in March, when COVID-19 shuttered the school, and the loss still stings, he said. A “pretty self-reflective kid,” Chris was expecting to hustle this summer, to work as he always does to take as much of the burden off his mom as he can, to get ready to transition to what comes next. “By the nature of quarantine, that’s just had to come a lot earlier,” he said. “I’m still grieving for the stuff I’m missing.”

Jasmine Winchester, Mastbaum High School, Philadelphia

Pragmatic and smart, Jasmine Winchester thought she knew what the fall and the future held for her: a four-year degree at La Salle University. But when COVID-19 hit, Jasmine — a Frankford resident who was a strong student at Mastbaum High in Philadelphia, a poet, a singer, a multisport athlete — decided to recalibrate her plans. Instead of going to La Salle, she will attend Community College of Philadelphia, working toward her ultimate goal of becoming an accountant. Her parents work hard, but can’t help pay for her college degree, and Jasmine, the second of four children, knows she needs to be careful. “I don’t know how colleges are going to run in the fall,” she said. “I don’t want to invest all my money into a college if I don’t know how it’s going to go with corona.”

Jasmine is disappointed she had to miss out on earning vocational exams that would have given her industry certifications — the tests were scheduled for after in-person classes halted — but she’s not letting that stop her from achieving her goals, she said. Jasmine has years of real-world experience in business already; she helps run her family’s restaurant, King Jaylin’s Seafood in Olney; in fact, when her father underwent surgery, Jasmine stepped up to help run the business as she juggled schoolwork too. “I didn’t get a lot of sleep,” Jasmine said. “It gave me a business ethic, and it made me want to pursue being an entrepreneur.” Losing the final three months of her senior year to COVID-19 were tough, Jasmine said. “My classmates and I went through a lot to walk across that stage, and now we don’t have that,” but it has shaped her, she said. “You should have a plan, and then if that doesn’t work, have a backup plan.”

Liliana Mariquinhos-Fernandes, Swenson Arts and Technology High School, Philadelphia

Liliana Mariquinhos-Fernandes is not a sparkly dress kind of person. But the silver-and-purple gown she chose for her senior prom was special — a celebration of her triumph over cancer, its color a nod to the ribbon that commemorates the Hodgkin’s lymphoma that took so much from her.

Lili’s cancer is in remission, but the last year has been a test for the recent graduate of Swenson Arts and Technology High School in Philadelphia. She received her diagnosis in April 2019, the week of her junior prom, and insisted on going to that dance because she wanted something to feel normal. But she felt awful and spent most of the evening coughing. For senior prom, “I wanted a do-over,” Lili said. Rounding the bend into the final months of her final year at Swenson, things felt different — Lili felt strong, had racked up a report card full of A’s, served as commander of Swenson’s JROTC program, and decided to study animal behavior at Penn State Harrisburg on her way to a planned career as a veterinary surgeon.

Then COVID-19 struck, and everything changed. Lili is disappointed she didn’t get to finish taking the vocational exam that would have given her a certified nursing assistant certificate to help her work her way through college, and that her squadron’s JROTC service project couldn’t happen. She never got to visit college campuses, and as an immunocompromised person, she’s “basically on house arrest,” unable to work her job at Chick-fil-A, see her friends, or venture much past the front door of her family’s Northeast Philadelphia home.

“If I got the virus, it would be very hard for me to get through it,” said Lili, the child of immigrants. But Lili’s eyes are firmly forward, despite losing family in Portugal to the coronavirus. She overcame cancer, and even a pandemic won’t keep her down. “This is an experience that made me stronger,” she said. “It made me realize who I am and what I want to do in life. It made me realize the importance of pursuing what I have planned.”

Wayne Cooper, Strawberry Mansion High School, Philadelphia

When Wayne Cooper was a sophomore, the Philadelphia School District announced that his school, Strawberry Mansion High — a refuge when things got crazy with family and life — would close. Eventually, the school got a reprieve, and Wayne became one of Mansion’s stars, with good grades, talent on the basketball court, and a big personality. Along the way, he was encouraged by educators who cared, and found his niche. That taught him something, he said. “They wanted to shut us down, and we wouldn’t shut down. It’s about perseverance.” Dressing up for his senior prom, inviting everyone he knew to graduation: That was supposed to be the payoff, Wayne said. Losing all that to COVID was tough. “That’s what I’ll miss the most — walking across the stage, having everybody hear them call my name,” Wayne said. “I had invited everyone. I had it all planned.”

It felt odd to be separated from his classmates, a group of young men and women with whom he’d been through so much, in the final months of school. Remote learning was easy — Philadelphia students had a lag of several weeks before learning shifted online — and while Wayne worked out and tried to keep busy, he said, he kept thinking, “I can’t believe I’m not going to be at Mansion anymore.”

As a young black man from North Philadelphia, Wayne said, he knows the world has an idea of who he is and who he’ll turn out to be. But he said he’ll prove them wrong. Wayne’s headed to Holy Family University in the fall, where he’ll play basketball, but he’s still not sure what the future holds. Classes came easy to him, but school wasn’t his favorite thing. “I tolerate it, because it’s what I have to do,” he said. “I’m going to college because it’s the right thing to do. I’m going to see how it goes.”

Diya Cherian, Pennsbury High School, Fairless Hills

Diya Cherian has no vivid memory of what her last day of school looked like. When the Pennsbury School District canceled classes — temporarily, officials thought in mid-March, to calm the spread of COVID-19 — she didn’t know to cherish the last lunch conversation, the last in-person class, the last hallway hug. Losing so many milestones was frustrating — she had hoped to win big at the state debate tournament, an opportunity she never got — but the more she reflects on what she gained in high school, the more she smiles, Diya said. As a newspaper reporter and editor, a member of choirs, a clarinetist and member of the marching band, and a student tackling a long list of challenging courses, Pennsbury shaped her. “School was, as sappy as it sounds, my second home,” said Diya.

Pennsbury has an in-person graduation ceremony planned for July, and Diya has been tapped to speak. She’s given a lot of thought to what she’ll say, and the gist of it is: “How important it is to live in the moment, that you define your own happiness, and that it’s not just about the way things end, but what it took you to get there. I’ve learned that the lessons I took away from Pennsbury are certainly not negated because we lost the last few months.”

After a summer spent working remotely in a research lab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Diya will begin classes in Manhattan in the fall as a neuroscience major and presidential scholar at New York University. “It’s been a longtime dream of mine to become a surgeon,” Diya said.

Enjelie Nuñez, LEAP Academy University Charter School, Camden

Enjelie Nuñez was determined to finish her senior year strong, even if that meant completing a full load of college courses while stuck in a rural area during a pandemic with spotty wireless access and one computer for seven people. That’s just how she operates. Before COVID-19, she worked 30-plus hours a week at a shoe store in Cherry Hill Mall to squirrel away money; she’s no stranger to hard work.

Enjelie, a graduating senior at LEAP Academy University Charter School in Camden, left for spring break in the Dominican Republic, where her grandfather lives. She had no idea she’d be marooned there for two months, unable to get home because of COVID-19. The area where her family lives is remote — it took an hour to drive to a nearby city to get food and supplies — so she mostly made do with whatever she could find on her grandparents’ farm. “It was really difficult,” Enjelie said. “There was just the one computer for all of us, and it was really tough to do homework.” Seniors at LEAP take college courses, and Enjelie knew she couldn’t slip. With her teachers’ help, she made it through classes, and got home in mid-May.

Enjelie will attend Rutgers-Camden to study social work. “I feel like helping people is what I should be doing,” she said. But she thinks there’ll be a tinge of sadness, looking back at the lost last part of her senior year. “Everybody on social media posts throwbacks — Instagrams of their proms and their graduations. I couldn’t have that,” she said.

Emma Donnelly, Kensington High School, Philadelphia

When COVID-19 abruptly halted her senior year at Kensington High, Emma Donnelly didn’t get down. Emma appointed herself the school’s personal cheerleader, taking advantage of every Google Meet with teachers, checking in with her classmates, and generally showing herself to be the hardworking, positive young woman she is. “This was a hard year, because of the pandemic,” said Emma. “People were really upset when they heard school was closed, absolutely devastated.” She skipped her junior prom and had been especially looking forward to dressing up and dancing at her senior prom; she hopes that she can attend some kind of makeup celebration in the future, or Kensington’s prom next year. Emma appreciates the virtual gatherings her school and the Philadelphia School District have held, but losing the rituals she looked forward to “was the biggest challenge of my life,” she said.

Emma, who is on the autism spectrum, spent five years in high school, growing in confidence and ability every year and never letting any obstacle get in her way. Shy at first, she blossomed. “I’ve been making a lot of new friends,” said Emma, the daughter of emigrants from Northern Ireland. “Every day in the halls, I would say, ‘What’s up,’ and ‘Hey,’ and the teachers, they really cared about me, the staff and students, everybody cared.”

Emma is headed to Drexel University in the fall, where she’ll participate in Project Career Launch, a one-year transition program for students with autism to focus on career-based employment. She hopes to find work in a child care center eventually, and to seek out public speaking opportunities; Emma has found her voice as a motivational speaker. But whatever comes next, Emma is committed to spending time mentoring other students at Kensington High.

Cailean Cavanaugh, William Tennent High School, Warminster

Shifting physics, calculus and AP government classes from in-person to online was a challenge, but the teachers at William Tennent High School made it work. But how does a ceramist finish AP studio art with no kiln at home? Cailean Cavanaugh found out this spring. (The answer: Get clay and tools, build sculptures, and leave them unfired for now.) Cailean, Tennent’s valedictorian, will head to Alfred University in rural New York in the fall as a fine arts/ceramics major, but entered high school certain he wanted to pursue engineering. But Cailean — a photographer and musician who comes from a family of artists who never pursued art professionally — was transformed by his art class experiences at Tennent — to the point where he now knows “I just kind of can’t live my life without pursuing art seriously.”

So while Cailean misses his friends and the easy camaraderie of in-person school, it makes sense that the senior-year loss he feels most keenly is the final performances of his jazz band and the district-wide art show where he would have had a gallery of his work, 10 to 15 pieces strong. “You get to do that exactly once, and I’m missing it,” he said. “I was going to have a pretty ridiculous wall in terms of scale. It was going to be great.” But he’s thankful for a smartphone and how it has kept him connected to friends despite the pandemic. “Text messages and video calls have basically become my lifeline,” said Cailean. “My parents are great, but I want to talk to people my own age sometime.” At college, Cailean hopes to add a chemistry major to his art studies; having to manage schoolwork at home for the last chunk of the year has better prepared him to take on such a heavy workload, he said. “I’m much more self-motivated,” he said. “In the past, I relied on going to school to be motivated at home. I took that for granted until suddenly, I wasn’t going to school at all.”

Olivia Kingsborough, Garnet Valley High School, Glen Mills

Olivia Kingsborough started holding a lacrosse stick before she could walk. And this spring was supposed to be an important one, her final season at Garnet Valley High before heading off to Boston University to play lacrosse. At first, she hoped the pandemic might let up in time to allow some form of a season to happen, but that was not to be. “Honestly, it was a little rough at first,” Olivia said. “I was really looking forward to my senior year — me and my teammates were hoping to be really successful.” Instead of hard-fought games, Olivia found herself working out with her sister, Sophie, a sophomore and fellow lacrosse player, and making care packages for her teammates to try to keep their spirits up. They stuffed the bags with yellow things to symbolize hope: Gatorade, M&Ms, flowers. “I went from seeing them every single day to being apart for so long,” said Olivia. “We tried to Zoom when we could, to see each other. We tried to keep each other positive.”

Instead of senior awards and a June graduation, there were virtual ceremonies, drive-by awards and, hopefully, an outdoor graduation planned for July. “This pandemic has definitely taught me to be more appreciative of what I have,” she said. “Everything can be taken away so quickly. My family always stresses that you need to control what you can control, so that’s been important.” And with a loosening of COVID-19 restrictions has come a great blessing: Her club lacrosse team was given the green-light to begin socially-distanced practices. “It helped me feel like the new normal is going to be OK,” said Olivia. “I know now that I will never take a practice, game, or being around my teammates for granted.”

Sophia Shaloka, MaST Community Charter School, Philadelphia

After spending 13 years at her school, MaST Community Charter in Northeast Philadelphia, Sophia Shaloka imagined the fall of her senior year would be the joyous culmination of growing up, laughing and learning with her classmates. But that was not to be. “It’s weird having such a large chapter of your life end on a random Thursday,” said Sophia. “When you’re with people for so long, you expect a different ending.” Still, there has been beauty in the pandemic. Sophia is the youngest of four children, and when quarantine was mandated, all of her siblings hunkered down at the family’s home in Holmesburg. With both parents working from home and the kids all trying to work or complete schoolwork, life has been busy, and food disappears from the fridge much faster. “A couple of us are in the dining room, and we have a couple people in their rooms, people just scattered everywhere,” Sophia said. “You almost have to rent out a desk.” And then there’s the extrovert challenge, the being in the house challenge. “I go for walks with my mask, but it would be nice to interact with people outside of my family.” Still, having everyone at home has made her family closer, for sure, with dinners together and nights by the fire pit. “We’re all that we have right now.”

Sophia, who will head to West Chester University to major in biology and secondary education, has an unworn prom dress hanging in her closet. Though MaST classes transitioned smoothly to remote instruction, nothing felt the same, Sophia said. She had to take AP exams at home. It felt odd to work on the school newspaper solo, and her final choir concert couldn’t happen as planned. “It was so nice to be really involved at school; I definitely missed that part of it. And with everyone in the house, you just can’t go around singing.”

Isabella Turner, Shawnee High School, Medford

When Isabella Turner was a freshman at Shawnee High School, she and a friend were talking wistfully about what life would be like when they were seniors, going to Walt Disney World for their class trip, choosing colleges, going to the prom. “Both of us said, ‘I can’t wait for that to be us,’” said Isabella. Her friend’s mother looked at the girls and told them how they’d blink and the time would be gone. “I remember her mom telling us, ‘Don’t wish that time away,” said Isabella. It proved to be good advice. With senior year interrupted by the coronavirus, Isabella, Shawnee’s senior class president, is missing a lot — the hoped-for prom and Florida trip, plus her spring track season and a charity walk she and a friend organized annually to raise money and awareness for the global water crisis, and a host of other activities. But despite the losses, Isabella is sure of one thing. “I have so many great memories,” she said. “I wouldn’t give up those three and a half years to get this part of senior year back.”

What Isabella found especially heartening during the pandemic were the notes, messages and words of encouragement from teachers. “It was such a cool thing to see how much they appreciated us, and how much they miss us,” she said. “They go into this job to help students and to be there for them, and this is hard for them too, to have what they love about their work taken away.” Isabella, who will head to Georgia Tech come August to study biomedical engineering and run cross country, said that because of COVID-19, she’s gotten a jump on a life lesson that may not have occurred to her until much later. “We’re so used to just scrolling through social media feeds, but now I know how important real communication is,” she said. “You have to be careful to maintain relationships, to meet up with people safely, or even to talk to them on the phone.”

Myquel Wiley, Motivation High School, Philadelphia

Myquel Wiley sees life laid out in front of him, a straight shot to a Ph.D. in psychology, a career as a clinical psychologist. It started at Motivation High School in West Philadelphia, where teachers reminded him of his gifts, talked to him frankly about the realities of student debt and the ways the world can bring you down. It will continue next at Cheyney University, where Myquel earned a full scholarship and a spot on the basketball team. And then? “I’m in that stay-in-school mentality,” he said. “I’m going straight through, the full years.”

It makes sense, then, that a pandemic did not deter Myquel. Sure, the missed milestones were a setback, but Myquel was more disappointed for the family members planning a massive prom send-off and big-time graduation celebration. “Most of my family, they didn’t graduate high school,” Myquel said. “I wanted that to be their moment, me in a cap and gown, walking across the stage.”

But Myquel is a big-picture guy, and he views three lost months of school as a blip. “Plus, it taught me how to keep motivated, how to make myself learn,” he said. “You’ve got to find the best possible way to get your education yourself.” Myquel was mostly finished amassing credits by the time COVID-19 hit, so he’s spent much of his time keeping his two little brothers occupied, keeping track of their friends, being a role model, even though he knows in high-poverty neighborhoods, a role model isn’t always enough. “In this city and with a lot of things that are going on around us, it could cause you to go astray,” Myquel said. “I had to mature fast, and I had to stay away from all that. We all have to adapt and adjust, and if we fail to do that, the blame is on nobody but yourself.”