No senior trip. No spring concerts. No true graduation.
The typical high school send-offs were stripped away from students around the world in 2020, and seniors at Cherry Hill East High School in Cherry Hill, New Jersey were not spared the changes wrought by COVID-19.
After a school shutdown led to online classes in March, a spring semester once filled with anticipation for the senior year shifted to one characterized by disappointment as events were canceled one-by-one. The spring musical production of “Legally Blonde,” spring chorus and orchestra concerts, a senior trip to Disney World, prom, and graduation all disappeared, leaving an empty calendar for many.
Seniors Bella Bentivogli, Erica Bocco, and Alma Martinez were all heavily involved in the arts at Cherry Hill East and would have been key participants in many of the canceled events.
Bentivogli was a member of the pit orchestra for the spring musical, was a member of a select choir known as The Belles of East, and was part of the marching band in the fall. Both Bocco and Martinez were members of another select choir group, Voce. Bocco was also in the marching band and color guard throughout high school, and she was a drum major in her senior year.
Although the three have had similar experiences at school, each student has a different view on how the coronavirus shutdown impacted their exit from Cherry Hill East.
INITIAL CLOSINGS AND REACTIONS
In Cherry Hill, schools were initially closed for a two-week period before decisions about the rest of the school year were made, but that wasn’t initially the plan.
“On Friday (March 13), our district was supposed to announce what their plan was,” Bentivogli said. “At first they said we were going to keep going to school and we weren’t going to have two weeks off like a bunch of other schools were. But then a bunch of people made petitions, so we got two weeks off.”
From Martinez’s perspective, there was just as much confusion.
“Nothing was really said right away,” Martinez said. “It sounded like we were still going to go on things like the class trip regardless.”
With Bocco, there was even an obvious health concern on top of that initial aggravation.
“Everyone was just kind of mad at first,” Bocco said. “Why put everyone at risk and wait for something bad to happen?”
However, one decision was made abundantly clear right off the bat. All extracurricular activities would be stopped immediately, which included the spring musical. At the time of the announcement, the show was in its second, and final, weekend. Students were told during a rehearsal the night before there was a chance the shows wouldn’t take place.
“At that point we knew that something was probably going to happen and we weren’t going to have the next week’s shows,” Bentivogli said. “The directors stopped us at the end and basically told us whatever happens, happens.”
Mark Warfel, Cherry Hill East’s production audio team lead, and Heather Lockart, a vocal director and chorus teacher at the school, knew the future of the musical wasn’t bright when the initial announcement was made.
“It didn’t make sense and the cast felt really let down,” said Lockart, who helped with the vocal instruction for the spring musicals for the past two years. “I think for them, and even for us, it was hard to comprehend why a school so large could still be in session, but yet, our show was canceled.”
Unlike previous years, the musical and all other events that usually took place in the auditorium at Cherry Hill East took place at Cherry Hill West High School due to a structural issue in Cherry Hill East’s auditorium.
“I knew we weren’t going to be able to do anything in [the Cherry Hill West auditorium] again, regardless of if school opened back up,” Warfel said. “We pretty much made the decision at that point that even if school came back, there was no way we were going to be able to finish the last week of performances.”
In addition to the immediate cancellation of the spring musical, another cancellation was not far behind. And this one would affect the entire senior class.
Each year, the seniors at Cherry Hill East take a trip to Disney World in Orlando, Florida before graduation. It’s something many students look forward to throughout their time in high school.
“When they finally called [the two week closure], it was kind of relieving but also disappointing because it was literally four school days before Disney was supposed to happen,” Bocco said. “If it was scheduled a week before, we would’ve been able to go.”
On March 16, just three days after East’s initial announcement, all Disney parks across the globe were shut down. The class trip was initially rescheduled for a time in early June, but the trip never happened. The park didn’t start its own reopening process until July 11.
“Towards the beginning, I had a little bit of optimism because that’s when [the school] was sending out emails saying they were going to reschedule [the trip] for June 7,” Bocco said. “I started to think if they had optimism about rescheduling, I should too. But it didn’t happen.”
In Martinez’s case, she wasn’t intending to go on the class trip, but she had other plans that were canceled. For her, the biggest loss came a little bit later.
“I was really upset not having the spring [choral] concert,” Martinez said. “The fact that the spring concert couldn’t happen and we couldn’t enjoy the last time on the stage and making the senior videos and everybody watching and things like that.”
Each year the seniors in the vocal department make videos reflecting on their time in choir which are shown between each group’s performance during the concert. As a member of the select choir Voce, Martinez had anticipated a spring concert send-off with the multiple choirs that filled her schedule throughout high school.
“I was really looking forward to that special moment, and that was really upsetting because you still have to do choir work during the pandemic,” Martinez said. “During this whole thing, I just kept re-watching old performances online.”
Old videos from prior years showed speeches given by seniors to teachers like Lockart at each spring concert, thanking them for everything they’ve done. While sitting at home, Martinez knew that she would not have the chance to say those goodbyes. The final sheets of music Martinez had been practicing for months would never be performed.
“It’s sad when you’ve worked so hard on something,” Lockart said. “Practicing your music in class and now you can’t perform it. It’s not like we can pick up next year and perform it.”
The spring concert always falls on or around Lockart’s birthday. It is something she looks forward to each year. This year, the concert would’ve been the day after. But instead of a concert, she was greeted with a drive-by celebration from her students.
“It shocked me and it was amazing,” Lockart said. “I got to see so many of them, even if it was just from a distance. I just sobbed. It was really nice!”
Even with the shutdown, Lockart reached out to her students in different ways over the past few months. She was also able to see a few of the seniors during the recordings done for East’s virtual graduation.
Several students brought gifts to her home to thank her for teaching them over the past four years. In addition to all the thanks Lockart received, she sent about 25 postcards to students that she was close with, wishing them luck and a bright future after graduation.
“Those little moments at least put a little Band-Aid over the wound,” Lockart said.
Since March, there has been time for reflection from both staff and students. Many have realized what is truly important to them. Social distancing at home has also given them time to lament lost moments everyone from the class of 2020 will never get back.
“We got the disappointment in small spoonfuls,” Lockart said. “All along the way, we had our fingers crossed until I think the majority started to realize that it wasn’t going to happen.”
Still, with the benefit of added perspective, it has been easy to see the wisdom in canceling large events.
“In hindsight, looking back I absolutely agree with the decision,” Lockart added. “We also found out later that one of our theater guests from the first week (of shows from the spring musical) had the virus.”
For instructors like Lockart and Warfel, because of the personal relationships developed with students, not seeing them able to participate in traditional senior activities was hard.
“After watching these people grow, I get attached,” Warfel said. “To not see them experience the norm that they would expect broke my heart in a lot of ways. They didn’t get a senior prom. They didn’t get a walk graduation. They didn’t get the final week of the shows. They didn’t get to feel those experiences knowing they were the last time.”
For the students, looking back over the year brings its own share of grief and thwarted expectations.
“For me it was prom,” Martinez said. “It’s senior prom! I was going to have a date and I bought dresses and I can’t return them. It was so sad.”
Outside of canceled events, though, there have also been few opportunities to commemorate and celebrate friendships that have felt increasingly meaningful over the course of high school.
“I’ve seen a few of my closest friends, but I never got to say goodbye to the friends I had from class and people in choir,” Bocco added. “I never really got that closure.”
For Bentivogli, the realization that her reality had permanently shifted struck her hard the day Gov. Phil Murphy announced that schools would close.
“I think not actually getting to say goodbye to all the good teachers I had, and even just people I was friends with in school, along with not having a true graduation, were the two hardest things,” she said.
Some still did try and find the bright side.
“I feel like the only good thing that came out of this year was the marching band season because I was the drum major,” Bocco said. “I feel like that was the only good part about the year really.”
Each student has since had time to look toward the future. Although things aren’t what they once were, they are still optimistic, anticipating whatever might happen next.
“I got to take some graduation pictures with my friends,” Bentivogli said. “But at the same time, I’m kind of excited just to start over.”
Bocco will be attending The College of New Jersey in the fall and isn’t too worried that the coronavirus will impact her experience there.
“I’m honestly not really scared about going to a campus right now,” she said. “I just want to get as close of a freshman experience at college as I can.”
She has faith that campus administrators will both manage the virus and provide some semblance of a normal experience.
“TCNJ said that they’re allowing people on campus, but they’re doing single dorm rooms and some classes might be online,” Bocco said. “They also said they’re canceling all extracurricular activities.”
Martinez will start at Jefferson University in the fall, majoring in health sciences.
“I was supposed to live on campus,” Martinez said. “But because it’s Philly and there’s other things also happening in the world besides the pandemic, my parents really want me to commute now, just because it might be safer.
She had high expectations for the freedom that comes with college but is also tempering those expectations, acknowledging the risks COVID-19 presents her and her family.
“At first, it was really upsetting because I just wanted to be able to move on and start with a little bit more freedom and college life and have that whole experience,” she said. “But after a while, I realized there are more important things, and it’s an actual risk that you’re taking every day, even for things like going to work.”
Martinez works in a mall and is surprised by the number of people who do not want to wear masks. This has made her reconsider the kinds of risks she is willing to take just to feel free at college.
“Every time you go out it’s a real health concern,” she said. “A lot of people in my family have health conditions that could lead to complications if they got the virus.”
For teachers and staff, there is no next phase to reflect on or consider; there’s only preparations for the fall with the Class of 2021. In the Cherry Hill East’s art department, a lot of focus has been put on the fact that if school is not in person, the department could be in trouble.
“My understanding is that the talk is that East is going to be online until January,” Warfel said. “That means no football season, no fall play, fall preview concert, the choral and band concerts, all of that stuff will be affected. I don’t know if they’ll make any provisions for anything, but probably not.”
Many of the high school’s arts programs culminate in public performances, some of the riskiest activities during the pandemic.
“I’m sitting here in July wondering how this is going to work,” Lockart said. “Can we perform? Is that even a possibility? Even if you social distance the audience, how do you have everyone on risers singing? Without those performances, why do people have the desire to be a part of it? It’s very scary!”
Bentivogli will be an incoming freshman at Temple University in the fall, and intends to major in biology, on the premed track. COVID-19 has made her think hard about what her education decisions may mean for the community at large.
“I definitely think we can all learn from this,” she said. “I think anyone in the health care field will take even more precautions with cleaning and stuff.”
Bentivogli, Bocco, and Martinez aren’t alone in experiencing a transition to college with hesitation this fall due to COVID-19. Even with administrations and health care professionals taking precautions, this new reality brings with it unique challenges. Students entering a university come from different backgrounds, different communities, and different locations. The risk of exposure to COVID-19 at college is likely greater than any high school student will face.
But as these students and teachers have shown, perseverance and personal responsibility may get them through until future Cherry Hill East High School students return to senior trips, spring concerts, and graduations.
Editor’s note: Our special reporting on COVID-19 may focus on communities outside Philadelphia because many of our student journalists are now temporarily located outside of the city. Instead, our reporters will cover how the coronavirus is impacting their own communities from across the country and around the world. We will return to hyperlocal coverage of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods as soon as possible.
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