Tragic events bookend the lives of most of the Class of 2020. Born in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, this year’s seniors are graduating in the midst of a global pandemic, with commencement ceremonies postponed until summer, held virtually, or canceled.
That’s why, for the past several weeks, Erik Naglee has been on a mission. The principal at North Carolina’s Page High School has been tracking down all 421 members of his senior class, going door to door with a video camera to talk to them about their accomplishments and aspirations.
“I was reflecting on my high school career and how special it was to me, and I could not imagine how these seniors must be feeling now,” says Naglee, whose school serves more than 1,900 students in Greensboro, North Carolina. “They are missing out on so many of their senior experiences because of this.”
As I mention in my feature story in this issue, “Plan for the Worst,” the coronavirus pandemic has raised a number of equity, technology, and social-emotional issues that districts must be prepared to address in the coming weeks and months. But for the Class of 2020, the loss of prom, graduation, and a host of other special events is both immediate and agonizingly real.
That loss is one reason why districts—unless ordered to do so by the state—hesitated to call a halt to all end-of-year activities, opting instead to postpone for several weeks and reevaluate based on emerging conditions. And it’s a reason school communicators—already with more on their plate than they ever bargained for—are looking for a variety of ways to recognize the seniors.
“When you say indefinite [closure], it’s almost too much doom and gloom,” says Rick Kaufman, executive director of community relations and emergency management for Minnesota’s Bloomington Public Schools. “It affects your psyche, especially for your seniors. One of the hallmark signature events in a person’s life is graduation, and that’s the last thing you want to take from someone.”
Kaufman was the communications director for Colorado’s Jefferson County Public Schools when the Columbine High School shooting occurred three weeks before graduation in 1999. The school opted to hold commencement then.
“We said we had to do whatever we could, of course out of respect and reverence for the victims’ families, to hold graduation because you can’t end a school year where kids are marked for life without having that closure,” Kaufman says. “To think, 21 years later, that’s where we are. This is going to happen in so many places.”
That prospect, Naglee says, is what woke him up in the middle of the night.
“I sat up in bed and said, ‘We’ve really got to figure out something to do.’ What can we do as a staff to create a positive memory? They don’t have interaction with their peers at school, their teachers, the staff. In talking to the kids, they seem so upset because of what they’re missing out on.”
Naglee decided to visit each senior’s home with a video camera. While maintaining social distancing—no handshakes or hugs—he asked students to talk about what they accomplished in high school and about their plans, whether it is going to college, into the military, or straight into the workforce.
“I also asked them to talk about what they liked, whether it was about a specific class, a teacher, or an administrator,” he says, noting that he posted the videos from each day’s travels. “I didn’t know what it would look like, but the response has been awesome, overwhelmingly positive. The students have enjoyed seeing me and our administrative team going out each day to visit them.”
Naglee, who has been a principal at all three levels (elementary, middle, and high school) for eight years, says he has received emails from parents and alumni across the state thanking him for “creating a different type of memory” for his seniors.
At 12 to 15 visits per day, Naglee figured it would take 38 days to get to the entire class. He has called the parents or students in advance with a time to expect him. He also uses the visits as a way to see if the students have enough food, whether they are having trouble with the district’s technology, and if they have any mental or physical health needs or challenges.
“Overall, they’re doing pretty well,” he says. “They’re sort of adjusting to the new normal and what that means. Their parents are adjusting as well and trying to support their kids with the online learning piece.”
Naglee and his wife, a special education teacher in Guilford County, have four children ages 2 to 11. Like all families with school-age children, they have been balancing trying to work while making sure the kids remain on task with their online assignments.
“It puts things into real perspective for me,” he says. “We’re in the field of education, so we know all the terms and all the lingo, and we’re tripping over computer cords and trying to figure out how to get it all done on the devices we have. There’s no question that this is a challenging time for everyone.”
What Naglee understands, through his actions, is the best and most effective communication is face to face, even when you must be at least six feet from each other.
“Relationships are so important to bringing these students forward,” he says. “When you have those relationships, you can get through anything together. We’re trying to get the students across the stage, whatever that may look like this year, so they can be ready for college and career opportunities. Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about.”
For Kaufman, the universality of the pandemic experience is something schools should be aware of and should use in their storytelling and messaging.
“The most important thing to remember is this is happening in every single community and touching every single child and adult in that community,” Kaufman says. “If schools are seen as the heart and soul of the community, and as doing the best they can under the circumstances to deliver a product that has been altered in the most unimaginable ways, they will build up so much social capital and goodwill. That’s what we all are trying to do.”