COVID canceled their proms and graduations. These Gen Z-ers won't forget it.

2020 grads reflect on the senior year that wasn't.

·5-min read
Three years later, Gen Z-ers and their families are reflecting on having their senior years disrupted by COVID-19. (Image: Getty Images; illustration by Natalie Peeples for Yahoo)
Three years later, Gen Z-ers and their families are reflecting on having their senior years disrupted by COVID-19. (Image: Getty Images; illustration by Natalie Peeples for Yahoo)

When Payton McGee was in kindergarten, she had a chance to speak at a high school graduation in her western Pennsylvania school district. The pomp and circumstance stuck with her through the years, and she looked forward to her own ceremony — in 2020 — for years. As COVID-19 raced across the globe, though, McGee saw that long-held dream slip away. First, a canceled college visit. Then national cheerleading championships were canceled, leaving a huge chapter of her high school career unfinished. Finally, that much-anticipated graduation ceremony was reduced to a Wednesday morning event with the other students whose last names started with "M."

At the time, the disruptions felt “monumental,” says her mom, Kelly. Looking back, the family says it seems insignificant — even sweet. “I really am lucky that I got to graduate with all of my immediate family right next to me,” Payton, now in her third year as an honor’s nursing student at the University of Alabama, tells Yahoo Life. “It’s not every day you can say you were handed your diploma with your parents, grandparents and your sister standing right next to you.” Her mom adds, “She didn't get a big graduation, but she will get a big college one that will matter more. In hindsight, it seems small in the grand scheme of things.”

Payton is one of over three million young adults who had their entire senior year of high school upended by the pandemic. According to Junior Achievement, a nonprofit group focused on post-high school readiness, the catastrophic shift in 2020 changed plans for most students. Four in 10 students said the pandemic altered their plans to pay for college. This caused a higher number of students to delay college, begin working sooner or change career paths altogether. EdWeed found that for students in low-income homes, the pandemic was twice as likely to alter their post-graduation plans.

Three years later, some of those students are now packing up their dorm rooms for the summer and preparing for yet another senior year. Countless more are out in the workforce, navigating the world as an adult in a world that looks wildly different than it did in 2020. While the upheaval felt staggering at the time, many members of the pandemic’s graduating class see it as just a chapter in the story they are writing — and it’s hardly the most exciting one.

Outside of Chicago, Elizabeth Blackwell had been preparing for her oldest child, Clara, to graduate high school for a long time. “She'd taken a lot of rigorous classes and spent many weekends doing homework, but finally, at last, she was going to have some fun," says Blackwell, who can still picture her weekly planner from early in the pandemic — prom, a concert, graduation and a “girls’ weekend” at a downtown hotel. But as weeks slowly ticked by and the curve did not flatten, she "gradually realized that everything would be canceled.” The weekday morning graduation was followed by a trip to a drive-through Dunkin’ Donuts instead of a lavish weekend away.

Looking back now, Blackwell realizes that more than the events, she feels sad about the social aspects of the pandemic her child missed. She felt like a preschool mom planning playdates again, as parents tried to figure out how and when it was safe for kids to meet up and gain some closure. “At a time when she normally would have made plans independently, I had to negotiate with other parents about what was safe," she says. "Can the girls meet outside? Can her friend come inside to use the bathroom, as long as everyone is masked and I use antibacterial wipes to clean everything before and after?”

Clara, who is now a student at Indiana University studying arts management, is currently studying abroad in Spain. Over WhatsApp, she shares that it's those social losses from her senior year that mattered the most to her, too.

“I don't care that much about losing those milestones,” says Clara. “It was more the abruptness of suddenly losing a bunch of casual friends and not being able to say goodbye. I think since then, I have more of a need to be around people because I was so lonely during quarantine. I wasn't seeing friends or doing anything fun during the end of my senior year and the start of college. I think that's what affected me most." Recently, while looking at pictures of the parking lot graduation, her mom realized that "they don't make me sad anymore. I can imagine a time when we all look at those photos and say, ‘Remember that? What a crazy time!’”

In Pittsburgh, Imogen Brooks is working hard and saving up money as an assistant kitchen manager for a local restaurant, hoping to buy a house of her own. Three years ago, her high school graduation consisted of her name being read on the local news channel. Some peers went to Schenley Park, a popular local hangout spot, to give the day a touch of grandeur. “It was probably not the smartest thing to do given the possible risk, but they were outside and together marking the end of their high school time together,” says her dad Greg. Life was an impossible calculation, daily.

While Imogen’s prom dress is still stuffed in a closet somewhere and her parents remember weighing the risk of every single decision, Imogen doesn’t have regrets. She enjoys work, spends time with a core group of friends and has plans for that gown.

“Yeah, I kind of missed the prom, but once I buy a house I’ll throw a huge-ass party for all my friends and we can all wear prom clothes," she says.

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