Kodiak High School valedictorian Jacob Dunlop was set to deliver a speech at the graduation ceremony at the end of this year. But with schools set to remain closed until the end of the year, Dunlop no longer knows if or how he will deliver his speech.
“I think it’s kind of strange that we get pulled out of our social scenes. We weren’t really expecting to not see our classmates ever again,” Dunlop said. “Since I’m moving out of Alaska, most of the people I went to high school with I probably won’t see for quite a while, so it’s kind of shocking for a lot of people.”
Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced last week that school buildings would remain closed until the end of the school year, forcing the Kodiak Island Borough School District to reconsider important annual traditions such as graduation ceremonies and end-of-year celebrations. For Kodiak seniors, the changes in the spring semester can be particularly difficult.
“We all remember how exciting the last day of school is,” said district Superintendent Dr. Larry LeDoux. “We have to find a way to bring joy into that.”
The district is now thinking of how to find alternative ways to make the class of 2020 graduation a memorable event for students and their parents, even if it can’t happen in person.
“With everybody working together, we will be able to do something that the students will never forget,” LeDoux said.
High School Principal Dr. Mel LeVan said there is a small chance that the virus spread will be slowed down enough to allow some student gatherings to be held at the end of the year. But at this point, the school has switched to the mode of planning an alternative to a traditional graduation ceremony, an effort led by Assistant Principal Joyce Blair, who has begun reaching out to families to collect their input on what they are hoping for.
One option is a town parade, where the community can cheer on the class of 2020 as they drive through town in their cars. The school is also considering an online ceremony celebrating each of the graduating seniors.
“As principal I want something really special for these kids,” LeVan said, noting that the district may hold an in-person ceremony at a later date, even if some students can’t participate because they have already left for college or for jobs. Many students participate in commercial fishing activities over the summer. Finding a convenient date for a late celebration will be difficult, but LeVan said he thinks “the community will want some celebrations when this is over.”
LeVan is set to retire June 30, but said he will show up to participate in the celebration, no matter when it happens.
Katie Parnell, another high school senior, said the loss of graduation traditions has been “devastating.”
“We hoped that we would eventually be back at school so we would have graduation and a prom,” Parnell said, noting that many other events were canceled, such as Key Club and Honor Society ceremonies. “It’s a defining moment for our generation. This is what we’re going to remember for the rest of our lives — this time, taken away from us.”
“We’ve seen older siblings go through graduation. We’ve just been waiting, knowing it will be us someday. We’re going to walk across that stage, we’re going to shake Dr. Mel’s hand, we’re going to be handed out diplomas. Now we can’t have that. It’s very sad,” she said.
Dunlop was set to leave Kodiak in early summer and begin college in California in the fall. But with travel restrictions in place, he said it’s hard to plan for what the summer and fall will entail.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” Dunlop said, noting that some schools aren’t clear if they will offer in-person classes in the fall. “This changes the scope of what I want to be doing a few months from now.”
For the time being. Dunlop said he is filling his days with schoolwork, phone calls with friends, photography and exploring the island.
“Especially if I can’t hang out with people, I can still hang out with nature,” he said. “A lot of time we take it for granted, but now we’re realizing how momentary and fragile everything is.”
Parnell is in the midst of preparing for Advanced Placement exams, which will take place online this year. She said most of her schoolwork is focused on the exams, which she finds more difficult than regular in-person school work.
“You have to be self-starting and you have to get yourself to do the work. You don’t have a teacher pushing you,” she said.
To fill the time, Parnell and her friends have been playing online games such as Pictionary and video games. During their open period, they call each other on Facetime to talk about homework problems.
Both Parnell and Dunlop attended a drive-thru birthday party this week. They stayed in their cars and hung out together to celebrate, while maintaining social distancing.
Dunlop said the community expectations have prevented young people from breaking the social distancing regulations.
“I think there’s more of a community expectation here, because it’s so small,” he said. “I think we’re more in the mindsight of having this communal-based respect.”
Like Dunlop, Parnell was planning to attend a university in the fall. Her hope was to matriculate to a college on the East Coast, but the pandemic has caused her to reconsider.
“If we’re still social distancing by the fall, I will probably enroll at UAA (University of Alaska Anchorage) for online classes for a semester, and then when everyone is allowed to go back to normal, I will transfer to a university in the Lower 48, so I can be closer to home if things get bad,” she said.
Parnell usually works during the school year and the summer, and the loss of the income could impact her decision to leave for college, she said. During the school year, she babysat and worked for a few hours a week at the Islander Bookshop. She lost both jobs when the pandemic hit. During the summer, she was planning to work at the Baptist Mission summer camp, but they may not be hiring this summer if pandemic-related regulations are still in place.
“I hope I can at least start my college education, no matter where it is. My ideal circumstance is that I get to go to college and have a normal college experience,” she said. “But the bare minimum for me is that I want to start the next phase of my life. This is the most difficult transition for all of us, but I hope we can get through it,” she said.
LeDoux said the district was not surprised by the governor’s announcement, given the progression of the virus in the state. However, he said the announcement now means teachers and administrators have to face some questions that arise from knowing the buildings will remain closed, such as how to return student belongings left in lockers and classrooms to their homes.
The governor also announced last week that a regulation that didn’t allow districts to keep more than 10% of state funding from year to year would be lifted. This will allow districts across the state more flexibility in how they spend their funds, after the governor vetoed $30 million in K-12 education funding from the state budget.
LeDoux said that the relaxed funding regulation will give the district more flexibility to complete numerous planned construction projects, which have been held up due to COVID-19, after the end of the current fiscal year.
“It’s just one less bureaucratic rule,” LeDoux said. However, he noted that the loss of funding vetoed by the governor has left the borough in a difficult position. Dunleavy promised to replace lost state funding with federal dollars through the CARES act, which was passed to address the economic fallout of COVID-19. But the district still doesn’t know if and when that money will be distributed.