Class of 2020: Alberta teens trade grad ceremonies for COVID-19 uncertainty


Danielle Vandersteen had been looking forward to high school graduation all year.

The 17-year-old Grade 12 student at École Alexandre-Taché in St. Albert had the perfect green lace dress picked out for the dance. She couldn’t wait to walk across the stage in her yellow and black cap and gown.

Now she doesn’t know if her celebrations will ever take place or when she will be able to see her classmates again.

“It was actually quite heartbreaking because, your whole school career, you look forward to the last days of high school with your friends,” Vandersteen said in an interview with CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM.

“I’ve been with some of my friends since preschool so it was really tough for us to realize that we wouldn’t have those last memories, those last goodbyes — you know, the memories that really make your high school experience the best.” 

Vandersteen is among thousands of Alberta students who will be missing out on graduation ceremonies amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students have traded their celebratory final days of high school for online classes and a summer marked by isolation and new uncertainty about the future. 

For the class of 2020, there will be no final ring of the bell, no corsages, no posing for photos with dates, no tossing of tasselled caps.

Classrooms are vacant. Large gatherings are prohibited. Grad celebrations at most schools have been postponed or cancelled. École Alexandre-Taché, Vandersteen’s school, is hoping to reschedule in the fall.

Vandersteen planned to work full-time this summer, saving money for a trip to New Zealand. Now she’s not sure if she’ll be able to find work or fly abroad in January as planned. 

“It’s all very uncertain at the moment.”

Danielle Vandersteen, 17, is set to graduate this spring from École Alexandre-Taché in St. Albert. (Supplied by Danielle Vandersteen)

With classes cancelled across the country, some teens are celebrating their high school graduations by hosting virtual gatherings.

Angela Pauls, the founder of Prom Project Alberta — an organization that donates or sells affordable formal dresses to teenaged girls — is organizing password-protected Zoom graduation ceremonies for high school graduates across the country.

Pauls said 675 students have already registered through the Prom Project’s Facebook group. Ceremonies are scheduled for June 13 across multiple time zones.

Students will have the chance to walk across a “virtual stage” to receive their diplomas after their names are called out by a DJ host. An Edmonton-based company is creating personalized certificates while sponsors are helping purchase cap tassels to be sent to participating students.

“We have kids that will be doing speeches and a couple students want to sing,” Pauls said. “So we want them to make it their own event.”

‘A chance to say goodbye’

William Richard, 18, a student at Edmonton’s Ross Sheppard High School, said the health crisis has nixed his summer plans and left his summer uncertain.

He was set to travel to New York on a school band trip and star in a musical production of Legally Blonde when his school was shuttered.

He was laid off from his job running a badminton program for kids. He wants to work this summer but is worried about taking a job where there may be exposure to COVID-19.

Richard hopes graduation ceremonies are postponed, not moved online. With only a slight smirk, he said a virtual grad would be “the saddest thing in human history.”

“It isn’t just the grad that we miss but the entire rest of the year,” he said. 

“In terms of grad, I really do miss the chance at that final time to actually bring some finality to your childhood,” he said.

“Your entire life so far has been your childhood and now you’re finally stepping into adult life. It was a chance to say goodbye to that.”

Lief Bjornson, 17, attends Paul Kane High School in St. Albert. She is planning on attending post-secondary in September. 

She’s hesitating between engineering at the University of British Columbia or going into sciences at the University of Alberta. Either way, she plans on living in residence. She doesn’t know if classes will be online or in person or if the residences will be open.

Bjornson said she was already nervous about university but the uncertainty is making it much worse. 

“I was looking to possibly get a job over the summer and then go straight into university, and that’s still my plan,” she said.

 “I was definitely going to go into residency no matter where I went but that seems kind of iffy at the moment.

“You know, you build up to grad as this is the final moment to say goodbye and finish it all off and now it kind of feels like it’s all left hanging.” 

 



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