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Local seniors come to terms with abrupt end to high school careers

For Dalia Lopez-Ruiz, the fact that her senior year was over became real when she stopped by Charlottesville High School in early April to pick up her artwork.

“I got to see my teacher, and it just made me really really sad,” she said. “I’m not gonna get to ever see you again. No more art class and no more school at all. All that routine that I had known, it’s like all gone.”

Lopez-Ruiz initially was excited for a break when, on March 13, schools were closed for two weeks to curb the spread of COVID-19, but after several weeks at home, she missed her friends and the traffic of high school hallways. She and other students left their schools abruptly, leaving behind artwork, instruments and full lockers.

“I’m just thinking about that one random government folder and textbook from English class [in my locker],” she said. “It’s still there.”

The closure was later extended through the end of the academic year, leaving members of the Class of 2020 to grapple with the sudden end of their high school careers. Many had classes to finish up and found respite in hobbies, from running to writing.

“I think I’m still expecting it to just suddenly snap back,” Elizabeth Davis, a senior at Western Albemarle High School, said in April. “It’s gonna be weird going into summer, because I think it’s just gonna fade into summer really. It’s all gonna feel the same.”

To make the final weeks memorable, area school systems have adjusted graduation ceremonies to give students a chance to don their caps and gowns and take photos. But other traditions, such as prom or the senior prank, have gone by the wayside.

“Seniors worked hard for four years and, without notice, everything they were looking forward to was cut short,” said Eric Irizarry, principal of Charlottesville High School. “My heart goes out to them.”

CHS recently hosted two days of Victory Lap celebrations in which students could drive through campus, take photos at the graffiti wall and cross the graduation stage. Irizarry said that might be the start of a new tradition.

Lopez-Ruiz said she was thankful for the experience.

“It just made me realize how sad I actually am about not being around so many people,” she said.

The art pickup in April was outside the school, and she wished she could have had one last walk through hallways for closure.

“But things didn’t go like that,” she said. “So I think I have to just accept that and be like, OK, yeah, that’s how it ended. I can’t change anything.”

Lopez-Ruiz was looking forward to typical rituals, such as graduation and the final moments where she and her classmates would all be together at school. She’s grown up in the Charlottesville school system.

Before schools closed, she was thinking about throwing her name in the hat to be a speaker at graduation.

“I thought I might take a chance and do that even though I’m a person who keeps to themselves,” she said. “My mind’s really loud, but I don’t speak that much.”

Lopez-Ruiz spent the last month of online classes finishing work for a dual-enrollment English course and preparing for the state board exam in cosmetology. She practiced on a mannequin head in her room during twice-weekly Zoom classes led by Charlottesville-Albemarle Technical Education Center instructors.

She’s planning to work in a salon after graduation once she gets her license.

CATEC recently held a virtual ceremony for students who completed programs.

“We’ve been practicing with permanent waves, doing perms and highlighting and all that kind of stuff, but with simulated products, not like real chemicals,” Lopez-Ruiz said.

She said she’s tried to treat the Zoom classes as if she was at CATEC, but she found it hard to get into the school mindset while being in her room.

“For me, I specifically need different areas to be like, this is where I do this, and this is where I do that,” Lopez-Ruiz said in early May. “It’s very jumbled at the moment, but I’m trying to work with it.”

All CHS students received an A letter grade if they were passing their courses as of March 13. Those who were not passing could complete a set of assignments to receive an A.

In Albemarle County, grades for all year-long high school courses defaulted to pass/fail/incomplete, though students could opt to receive letter grades. That final grade would be their first semester grade as of March 13, and students could raise that grade by one letter by completing assignments.

Davis, the Western Albemarle senior, said she was disappointed that students weren’t going to finish out the semester with grades.

“It’s throwing me for a loop how the grading system is now, though, because I think all of us wanted to end with a good GPA and end well,” she said. “I purposely took really hard classes because I kind of wanted to show off,” said Davis, who indicated that she is opting for letter grades.

Science is her favorite subject, and her favorite class this year was AP Physics. She plans to attend Virginia Tech and major in biology.

Davis said she’s going to miss her teachers, especially those in the Environmental Science Academy with whom she’s spent the past four years.

“It feels really anticlimactic that I didn’t get to have that last day with all of those teachers since I’ve worked with them and gone on field trips with them for so many years,” she said. “I do wish I had gotten to finish out those classes.”

When schools closed, though, Davis said her first concern was about prom, which was a surprise because she’s always been an outdoorsy person. But she already had a dress and a date.

When schools closed, she was starting her final spring season on the track team. She had hoped to use her time this season to join Tech’s team as a walk-on. Now, she’s planning to run club track next year.

In the meantime, she’s been racking up the miles, running by herself and with teammates, from a distance. An only child, she’s also been taking care of the family’s two border collies, Bella and Piper.

Classes in both school systems restarted, virtually, on April 13. Davis said those first days felt like a normal class. Overall, she said it was an OK experience but wouldn’t want to do it again.

“That’s a testament to how good the teachers are that they can make it work like that,” she said. “They just kept going.”

Austyn Nowell, a senior at Charlottesville High School, spent the past two months directing a performance of skits and songs known as “dessert theater” and coordinating a virtual talent show that aired Friday. The dessert theater will be broadcast June 5 on YouTube.

“Despite not being able to come together to even film it or rehearse together face to face, we’re still figuring out different ways and techniques to make this show happen,” he said of dessert theater, which has historically been directed by seniors. “… It’s still allowing the group of seniors that I’m working with and myself to get the experience of being a director.”

In between rehearsals and work shifts at University Village, Nowell needed to finish assignments for a few classes.

He liked having class materials available online, at any time.

“It definitely helped my education process,” he said.

Nowell is attending Virginia Commonwealth University in the fall to study lighting design and technical theater.

Looking back, Nowell said the abrupt end to senior year was a shock, but he wasn’t as upset as others, though he misses not having a formal graduation ceremony and other senior traditions.

“It sucks to miss out on those things, but also there are plenty more experiences in life to come that I won’t have to miss out on,” he said. “So I can take this one for the team.”

When Gov. Ralph Northam closed schools, Nowell and the theater department at CHS were preparing for “Music Man,” the spring musical. Nowell played Marcellus Washburn, a supporting lead.

The cancellation of the show was sad, he said, and that’s why the final productions of the school year from the talent show to dessert theater were all the more important.

“We decided that we were going to do it no matter what we were going to try, and if it turns out horrible, then that’s still an experience that we had,” he said. “It will still be a story for us to tell when we meet years down in the future. Like hey, remember the really terrible show we did? … We’re going to keep going, just trying our best. We want everyone to be able to still have a last theater experience since we missed out on that last show.”


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