COVID-19 ended my son's senior year early, but there are silver linings

This is a spring none of us will ever forget.
/ Source: TODAY

Last August, as we prepared to return to school, I braced myself for the emotional year ahead: my firstborn's senior year in high school.

Having watched friends go through it before me, I knew that this year would be full of his "lasts," and that each one would knock the breath out of me a little, preparing me for the big gut punch that would be his senior spring.

My firstborn's high school senior spring is canceled thanks to COVID-19, but our family is finding a few silver linings in this dark moment.Courtesy of Allison Slater Tate

This is the baby that taught me how to be a mother, after all. For the past 18 years, every "first" and "last" have been both of ours to experience together. Watching him walk across the stage at graduation was going to feel like my graduation, too — the culmination of so many days and nights I held a squalling, colicky baby, desperate for sleep, or his hot little body while he fought a fever, or his hand as we walked to the threshold of his new preschool, kindergarten, and elementary school classrooms.

As the calendar flipped to 2020, I realized how close we were to the finish line. I was ready. This was it.

Then, March happened. As our schools closed for spring break, so did the country in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak. More than 100,000 people have died from it now worldwide, including those loved by people we know personally. We feel so grateful for our health, our home, and each other, but of course, there is still sadness when we see the calendar notifications pop up, reminding us of what we would be doing if the world was not turned upside down.

Though at this moment the public schools in our state are hoping to open again May 1, we are all mentally and emotionally prepared for our students not to return to school at all this year. There are plans for an alternate graduation ceremony this summer; we hope COVID-19 won't dash those as well. Like so much right now, nobody knows yet.

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But even with news of the tragedies both big and small wrought by COVID-19 every day now, our family has found a few silver linings in our time at home in quarantine. I am holding on to them as a way to celebrate what we can in an otherwise very dark moment in our world.

Time is on our side

Had the country and the schools not shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus, these months would have been a whirlwind for my senior: varsity volleyball practices and games, Senior Nights, awards ceremonies, skip days, prom, all on top of his school days and work. We would have caught mere glimpses of him, a blur of hoodies and khaki shorts, as he slipped in and out of the house each day. I would have blinked, and suddenly March would have been May.

Instead, he has online assignments and studying. And... that's it. There have been nights when he has played "Just Dance" with his 7-year-old sister (she beat him at "Blurred Lines" — that's gold star parenting right there — and he won't soon forget it). Some nights, he and his two younger brothers team up on whatever video game I really don't want to know about; the younger boys scramble to their monitors when he suggests it because they know exactly how rare it is for him to offer. He has appeared by my side on the couch or the bed a few times, just checking in, and I have to restrain my giddiness. Be cool, I think to myself. Don't scare him off.

At some point, this country will reopen, and my son will leave for college. Once he leaves, I know that though we will always be his family and this will always be a home for him, it will never be quite the same. I am feeling grateful for this pause button that has forced not just him, but me, to be here now. With the fragility of life more apparent than usual, I will not take this time with him for granted.

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The Class of 2020, like my son Mason and his friend Ava, realize that Snapchat is not a replacement for hugs from real, live friends. Courtesy of Ava Casey

Our teens know that people are better than smartphones

As a Gen X parent, I have done my requisite share of handwringing over the roles technology and social media play in my children's lives. More than once, I have worried that my Gen Z children would not know how to interact with real people when the situation demanded it.

I am here to report that when isolated in their homes with only phones and computers to communicate, our teenagers still crave real human interaction. They miss each other. Snapchat and Instagram Stories do not actually replace their friends in the flesh after all.

I recently set up a Zoom call for my son's volleyball team, using one team member's birthday as an excuse to nudge them into participating. Once they were all on and before I closed my monitor to give them their privacy, my heart swelled to see the genuine smiles on their scruffy teen boy faces when they laid eyes on each other in real time.

As the boys cracked each other up with their increasingly outrageous and goofy virtual background choices, I realized how much they needed this. Though it is sad to watch them miss each other, it also reassures me that they do. When they break free from stay-at-home orders, I think there is a chance these teenagers will somehow remember what it means to lose the chance to be with the people they care about, and their future priorities might reflect that value.

These kids will be (more than) all right

The Class of 2020 — babies born in the wake of 9/11, fifth graders when a shooter murdered 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, high school sophomores when their peers were shot down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — are already a heartbreakingly resilient group. They are no strangers to tragedy.

Our high school seniors are now spending their last few months of high school at home without the pomp and circumstance they were promised, but they are not pouting about it. They are finishing their school work, studying for AP exams, working at grocery stores to keep the shelves stocked, and delivering food and supplies to those who cannot safely go out into the world right now. They are looking for ways to be helpers, whether by offering to virtually tutor younger children with their spare time, committing random acts of kindness, sewing masks, or writing to lonely nursing home residents.

Watching our country's health care and emergency professionals race to help the sick and suffering without the protection they need and their friends and family cope with this pandemic's devastating effects on the economy, the Class of 2020 knows there are more important things to worry about than their high school proms or graduation ceremonies. They are rightly grieving for what was supposed to be and what they are missing, but I think they understand why it has been taken away from them. My son has handled all of this with more grace than I have, if I am being honest. I am taking comfort and finding hope in that.

This graduating class will, someday, put on real clothes again and walk out into the world to begin assuming their place in it. They will share both the experience of this lost last spring and the bravery it will take for them to face an uncertain first fall after graduation.

Instead of focusing on all they have lost, I am choosing to believe that my son and his classmates have been given the chance to develop strengths and skills that will allow them to change the world. Maybe someday, these unexpected gifts of a senior spring quarantine will be just a small part of the story and the legacy of the Great Class of 2020.