After watching prom, grad bash and large-scale graduations get canceled for last year’s senior class, Rohey Barrow felt bad for the students one grade ahead of her.
Senior year is as much about dressing up, partying and celebrating the end of a 13-year adventure with friends as it is about earning a diploma, getting into college or a job, and moving on.
Barrow figured her Class of 2021 would get to have it all. The coronavirus might have abated, and schools would get back to normal.
“I thought we would all be good,” the Lakewood High senior said. “I didn’t think it would affect me.”
The senior class only wishes.
Instead of losing a quarter, this group in many ways lost the entire year. Schools opened for classes, but with masks, social distancing and other rules in effect, the experience has proved a pale imitation of what many had hoped for.
It hit some teens hard.
“I’m not going to lie. It hurts,” said Jenesis Montero, a senior in Blake High School’s fine arts magnet program, who saw so many of her performances and competitions canceled. “I didn’t think they would take everything away. We have nothing. We have literally nothing.”
“I can’t even think of all the things I’m missing out on,” added Sabrina Feldman, a senior in Hillsborough High’s International Baccalaureate program. “It doesn’t even feel like a senior year.”
Through the rough times, though, she and others still found reasons for optimism and a sense of appreciation for the moments of joy they could take from this milestone year — singing around a piano, watching a football game, making new friends.
“I go to school every day, and I try to appreciate it, because last year when I didn’t have it, I was bored out of my mind,” said Gavyn Dorsey, a senior at Zephyrhills High. “I treat every day like it’s the best day.”
For many, the year began with the realization they’d have to choose whether to take classes from home, or return to school. It wasn’t a decision they wanted to face.
The prevailing expectation among many had been similar to Barrow’s — COVID-19 would be in everyone’s rearview mirror. No such luck.
Some came to their conclusion easily.
“As I learned about e-learning and the procedures, I was a little more open to it,” said Lance Laneve, a Freedom High senior who signed up for remote classes. “It sounded pretty nice.”
Gulf High senior Hoang Phan, by contrast, couldn’t imagine staying home any longer.
“Once we started online, the motivation wasn’t there,” he said. “When I saw that (schools would reopen), I was like, ‘I’m going to school.’ I think it was the best idea. (Now) I’m a straight-A student.”
Others wavered back and forth, testing both models to see which suited them best. Lakewood High senior Leah Broadnax began the year attending in person.
Like so many others, she wanted to spend time with friends and enjoy senior year as much as possible.
After one quarter, she switched back to online classes.
“As crazy as it sounds, I didn’t like all those people around me during COVID,” said Broadnax, a cheerleader and senior class vice president who plays a big role in organizing the few events everyone can have. “They weren’t taking it serious.”
She wasn’t the only one to realize that school life wouldn’t be much fun. Besides the canceled and scaled-back activities, many classmates weren’t there. And if they were, they couldn’t find much time to hang out together just to talk, much less anything else.
The risk of being quarantined also loomed large.
Dorsey had to isolate once before his final basketball season began.
“I was honestly down in the dumps,” he recalled. “I thought my senior year was over. It felt like I was going back to my junior year, when everybody had to go home.”
He got back to campus and has played his season, so far without added interruptions. The small crowds allowed make it less thrilling, he said, but he’s happy to get the games in and lead his team.
For some, quarantines have caused more serious problems.
Plant City High senior Riley Buttorff had been preparing to take the ACT test one last time to earn a qualifying score to attend the University of Florida and become eligible for a Bright Futures scholarship. She needed two more points.
“We got quarantined the day before by contact tracing, so we weren’t able to take it,” she said. “It could cost me admission to my dream school.”
Classmate Jackson Knotts missed that testing date, too, as well as several class days, being quarantined from before Christmas to two weeks after winter break. He fell behind in his lessons, and had to double down to catch up.
Those weren’t the only opportunities hindered during this unusual senior year.
A football long snapper, Knotts said he saw his college recruiting chances dwindle as university athletes have been granted an extra year of eligibility. Laneve, the Freedom High senior, said he lost opportunities to take some advanced courses he hoped to complete, as they weren’t available to online students.
“COVID has very much harmed my prospects for education,” he said, noting he still intended to apply to some of the nation’s most competitive universities.
One upshot for many: Senioritis.
“Senioritis has been very, very real,” said Reanna Wilson, a Gulf High senior. “It’s been super hard to get up in the morning.”
“With a lot of people, it’s hitting us hard this year — especially for students who are online,” said Barrow, the Lakewood High senior, who has seen classmates not doing course work until the last minute and often tuning out.
But that does not mean the entire year has been a bust, she and others said.
“Having a positive outlook is all we can do,” said Wilson, who enrolled in her first Advanced Placement course ever at Gulf High, to make sure she isn’t “under-doing” senior year.
She’s now more confident than ever about her post-high school plan to become an ultrasound technician.
Broadnax, the Lakewood High cheerleader, joined three new clubs and helped her school administration devise a type of prom that might not be all everyone wanted, but at least it’s something.
“You just have to turn it around and find the silver lining in it,” she said.
Buttorff, the Plant City High senior, said the year’s ups and downs have led to new friendships.
“It kind of has brought us all together. We all relate. We’re all really struggling to think positive,” she said.
Phan decided to join Gulf High’s wrestling team and found himself with one of the group’s best records. Why do it?
“It’s my final year. I might as well,” he explained.
Knotts, the Plant City High senior, credited teachers and principals for helping create the best possible senior year, given the circumstances. They’ve worked hard to provide what they can, he said, and it’s been up to the teens to take advantage.
He invoked a famous big screen senior of 35 years ago to drive home his point.
“I’ll just quote Ferris Bueller: ‘Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it,’” Knotts said. “That could probably go for any year, but for this year it’s especially true.... Give everything you have to senior year. I’m really thankful I came.”
As graduation day approaches, the seniors shared a combination of excitement and dread.
Feldman, the Hillsborough High senior, had concerns that conditions still wouldn’t be safe for an in-person event. She expected to skip the ceremony, instead looking ahead to moving on to Wellesley College.
Not so for others. Some said they could hardly wait to walk across the stage. Some looked forward to having a party, however large or small, to mark the long-awaited transition.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Montero, the Blake High fine arts student. “I want the year to be over. But then I have to leave.”
Barrow sounded optimistic that the Lakewood High Class of 2021 — and other seniors across the state — will be able to celebrate a normal graduation. She also had wishes for the next class.
“I really do hope the juniors this year can have the senior year we didn’t have,” she said, “or at least something close to it.”