LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Summer McNealy, a senior at Seneca High School, had her prom night all planned out.
She worked and saved until she had the $200 she needed to buy her dress for the occasion, something she’s looked forward to for years.
Then she got word through Remind, a school communication app, that the April 17 event had been called off as JCPS and other school districts throughout Kentucky closed through at least March 27 with the state in the throes of a global pandemic ignited by the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19.
On Friday, Gov. Andy Beshear recommended that schools close until at least April 20, three weeks longer than his initial recommendation, as COVID-19 cases continued to increase.
“As a little girl, you imagine like playing dress up and you do all that stuff, and then your senior year, you get to go and hang out with friends, and it's supposed to be the biggest thing of your life or your high school career,” McNealy told WDRB News. “I'm heartbroken, honestly,” she said. “Those things that you look forward to at the end of high school and seeing all your friends at prom and getting dressed up and nice and being able to celebrate these achievements are just down the drain now.”
JCPS and other school districts are scheduled to reopen their doors April 20. In Indiana, Gov. Eric Holcomb ordered all public schools closed until at least May 1.
For McNealy and more than 6,400 other JCPS seniors, the realization that they may have walked through the doors of their schools for the last time as students is starting to sink in.
Milestone events — graduation, prom, final sports seasons — are up in the air as Kentucky and other states hunker down in hopes of limiting COVID-19’s spread across the country. In Kentucky, there are at least 47 confirmed cases.
Sky Carroll, a duPont Manual senior, said the uncertainty of whether classes will return to normal has left her “completely devastated.”
“I never thought I'd say this, but I want to go back to school so badly,” she said.
Carroll is the content director for Manual’s On the Record magazine, and the final edition she had been looking forward to producing has been postponed until next year, though stories about the impacts of the coronavirus outbreak are available on the magazine's website.
The COVID-19 outbreak has upended coverage plans for the magazine’s final issue for the 2019-20 school year, she said.
“We're literally in the middle of a crisis, and it wouldn't be like very journalistic of us to not cover it,” Carroll said.
The pandemic and efforts to contain the coronavirus’s spread have also postponed Manual’s annual “senior soakers” competition. Seniors must pay $10 to enter and draw names for targets, who they must squirt with water guns in elimination rounds.
Friends betray friends in the friendly competition that can net the last student standing more than $1,000.
“I’m still in, thank God,” said Euan Dunn, a senior and one of this year’s organizers.
While there’s prize money at stake, bigger questions loom about the future of events like graduation.
If there are commencement ceremonies, Dunn wonders whether he and other seniors will invite their grandparents since people in their age groups have faced greater health risks when they contract COVID-19.
Parents young and old could also see serious ramifications if they catch the coronavirus, he said, noting that he plans to hold a graduation party regardless of how Manual handles the landmark ceremony.
“That's just how we're going to have to do it,” he said. “I definitely think it's going to be a lot less people.”
Although he has “a good feeling” that Manual will honor its class of 2020 with a traditional graduation ceremony, the prospect of a virtual commencement is also on his and others’ minds.
“Obviously there’s been a lot of memes about the class of 2020 graduating online, which is kind of funny,” Dunn said. “But at the same time, it’s pretty realistic.”
JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said Friday that all schools will have graduation ceremonies "whenever it is safe to do that" after the COVID-19 outbreak.
Dunn is also one of the thousands of student-athletes across Kentucky who have had their spring seasons postponed by the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, which instituted a dead period through at least April 12.
That means for the first time since he was about 4 years old, Dunn isn’t with his teammates on the baseball diamond. The team was scheduled to start the season Tuesday against the Christian Academy of Louisville, and he’s used to practicing or playing the sport six days a week during seasons.
Since the dead period started, he’s tossed with some of his teammates to keep his arm loose in hopes that play will resume soon. With gyms closed around Kentucky in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s worked out with those fortunate enough to have equipment at home.
“All of us really just care about the fact that this is the last time we're going to get to play together and that we wanted to have a really good season,” Dunn said.
He’s not planning on playing baseball in college, so this could be a premature end to his days on the diamond.
“The idea that I might never play again, it's heartbreaking,” he said. “It really is, but I’ve been able to respond to it pretty positively lately.”
He’s keeping perspective on the situation he and others face in the ongoing pandemic, saying he realizes he has access to basic resources like shelter, food and health care that others lack.
“A lot of people have to go through a lot worse,” he said.
He’s not the only student-athlete who’s concerned about the ramifications of COVID-19 on their athletic endeavors.
McNealy has committed to play volleyball for Thomas More University in Crestview Hills. She was playing with a club team before the sudden halt to the season, which is scheduled to resume March 31.
The spring club season is important for her as she looks to hone her talents on the court in preparation for competing at the collegiate level.
She’s been in contact with Thomas More’s volleyball coach, who had wanted incoming freshman to come to some spring practices. That’s been put off as collegiate spring sports throughout the country have been canceled.
“I was super looking forward to going into college and being ready, the best shape that I could be in to play my freshman year, and now I don’t have to necessities to do so,” McNealy said. “I was promised I could play this season and play the best teams of my age level, and I can’t even do that to prepare myself for the next level.”
Carroll, too, faces the prospect of losing most of her senior lacrosse season.
She was one of five captains of Manual’s squad and said this was the team on which she was most excited to play. Their season was just getting started before JCPS and other school districts shut down in-person instruction for weeks.
“Spring is my absolute favorite time of the year because that's lacrosse season for me, and I've been playing lacrosse since my freshman year of high school,” she said.
Carroll also worries about the potential impact of school closures on her readiness for advanced placement exams, which can lead to college credits.
She feels good about her English literature and composition and U.S. government and politics AP classes, but her course on comparative government and politics is another story. The class is expected to learn the government and political apparatuses for six countries, but she says they only got through three before in-person instruction was called off last week.
Her teacher, Tim Holman, is “phenomenal” and “really breaks things down for us,” and learning on her own won’t be the same, she said.
“I'm a little worried about learning about the three countries that we haven't studied yet because obviously I'm not an expert in them and I've never really learned about them before,” Carroll said. “I think it might be manageable, but I don't know. That scares me, that test.”
The College Board, which administers advanced placement tests, has said it will offer 45-minute exams online due to mass school closures across the country in response to COVID-19.
School board members also worry about the growing uncertainty surrounding in-person classes for the 2019-20 school year.
During a virtual Jefferson County Board of Education meeting Thursday, Pollio told the board that the district’s scheduled return of April 6, at that time, was “highly unlikely” and that he expected the closures will last “multiple weeks past that.”
Pollio reiterated that point during a press conference Friday and said the possibility of losing in-person instruction for the rest of the school year is "a distinct possibility."
“I do have really big concerns that that in fact might be the reality of the situation,” Chris Brady, who represents District 7 on the JCPS school board and works as a medical technology trainer at Norton Healthcare, told WDRB News before the meeting when asked about the possibility of schools calling off regular instruction for the rest of the year.
The board approved the district’s non-traditional instruction plan Thursday, which will allow the district to offer remote learning opportunities for students during the closures. Later that evening, the General Assembly approved a bill that would, among several other items, allow districts to request as many non-traditional instruction days as needed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
JCPS will also offer 25,000 Chromebooks to students who lack technology in their homes.
“It breaks my heart that our seniors might lose the opportunity to attend their prom, attend their graduation, to have those kinds of rites of passage as they conclude their school careers with us in JCPS,” Brady said.
Like many others across Kentucky and the U.S., the class of 2020 will need to adapt to rapid changes that have altered their lives as states and countries grapple with the coronavirus.
For Dunn and others, they’re learning that nothing in life is guaranteed. The uncertainty surrounding the rest of the 2019-20 school year is “the most discomforting part of the entire thing,” he said.
“After we leave here, whenever that may be, we're never going to see most of the people that we're with right now ever again, you know?” Dunn said. “And that's hard to grasp for a lot of people.”
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