Like all celebrations during a pandemic, graduations will be dramatically altered this year. With the closing of campuses in March, students exchanged athletic tournaments, academic competitions, prom and senior skip day for online classes and social distancing.
Adaptability may be the defining characteristic for the Class of 2020. They were both born and graduate at dramatic times in history, coming into a world altered by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and graduating during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Estero Life Magazine asked five Estero High School seniors to share their experiences. These remarkable young people illustrate the resilience of all members of the Class of 2020.
The School District of Lee County is planning virtual graduation ceremonies posted on YouTube, followed by a delayed live graduate celebration at Hertz Arena on July 18, if Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines permit.
Jack Zigler, Senior Class President
“I had just recovered from a concussion that took away my football, and then I was hit with this,” says class President Jack Zigler. “I had a choice to let it get me down or to move forward.”
He saw a light at the end of the tunnel: attending University of Central Florida (UCF) in the fall.
Julia Mattos, senior class adviser, commends Zigler’s leadership on memento projects to mitigate losses. Seniors sent photographs from their years at Estero High School for a slideshow and chose accompanying music by building a collaborative Class of 2020 Spotify playlist.
Zigler hopes to give each graduate a panorama class photo, and class officers may plan a class reunion in the fall.
“At first I felt like I couldn’t lose any more – it was initially overwhelming,” he says.“But I have time to be closer to my family, to enjoy and appreciate them. I have time to reflect on my future and just be glad to wake up every day. I am going to come out of this a better person.”
Nydia Brown, President of Estero High Thespians
As president of the thespian troop, Nydia Brown’s most recent acting role was the conductor in “The Polar Express” last winter. The school’s spring production of “Clue” had to be canceled.
“It’s tricky to be grateful, but given the circumstances, having the opportunity for classes online is a taste of what self-sufficiency looks like,” says Brown. “When our teachers said no one would be holding our hand in college, this is what they meant. I am ready for FGCU in the fall.”
Along with acting, Brown has missed social contact. Virtual interactions are the new norm.
“Zoom connections are the hallways; emails are how we go see someone for guidance,” she says. “I can spend what seems hours socializing on FaceTime, and the Student Government Association posts information about seniors that’s similar to signing yearbooks.”
With the ability to plan her own schedule, Brown has finished reading “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara — a heavy book in both content and pages (700).
“When this is over, we will think of this time and make fun and laugh over the frustrations, the losses and the challenges,” Brown says. “In the end, it will work out, and we will see it as a unique experience.”
Shayla Neis, Student Government President
Shayla Neis started setting a schedule right away.
“We get our online assignments on Monday, and I set my schedule for the week,” says the organized student government leader. “I’ll be much better prepared for independence once I reach UCF in the fall. Doing the advanced Cambridge classes online has been challenging, but now I see what I can do.”
Neis feels close to her teachers and administrators and asks, “How will I say good-bye?”
The Estero High School staff has tried to stay connected with students virtually, creating a video compilation with teachers sending their greetings while sheltering at home, many inserting humor into their clips.
Neis also grieves the loss of time with classmates, now interacting mainly through Instagram. She has been highly involved with many school organizations. Planning for next year’s student government elections has taken place through texts and emails.
She’s grateful for the continued support of Estero’s administration.
“Any vision, idea, event or school spirit idea has always been supported,” Neis says.
Juan Ramirez, Soccer Team Captain
“Soccer is my life,” says team captain and goalie Juan Ramirez.
Imagine his disappointment when games and practices ended. Even his candidacy for a full-ride soccer scholarship at Shaw University in Raleigh, NC, became uncertain — no college tours, no trips, no team practice.
“My garage became my workout gym,” he says. “I ran in my neighborhood with my soccer ball between my feet.”
College tours were virtual, and he kept his eye on his personal prize: the dream of playing soccer in Raleigh. He was “ecstatic” when the offer from Shaw came through.
“Raleigh is a college town – an opportunity to spread my wings and explore the world for what it is,” says Ramirez.
He plans to major in international accounting.
“My mom is an accountant, and I find math easy, so I’m on my way,” he says.
But first, he looks forward to celebrating graduation — in whatever form that takes — with friends he’s known since middle school.
Olivia McMaster, President of HOSA-Future Health Professionals
COVID-19 precautions turned Olivia McMaster’s practical learning for a Certified Nursing Assistant certification into simulations with dolls, followed by video instruction when classrooms closed. As president of HOSA, her pre-COVID schedule had included out-of-town conferences for networking with medical professionals, where she had intended to gain support for her path into pre-med at University of Florida.
While teachers have granted some leniency to account for home situations with distractions and family members sharing laptops, the content knowledge is still required, says McMaster, who takes college-level Cambridge courses. She’s had to improve her time management skills.
“I have a very important head start for college,” she says, looking at the bright side.
HOSA members recently held a Zoom dinner meeting, sharing a virtual meal with members from across the state and nation.
“We would not have had such a diverse dinner party in a local restaurant,” McMaster observes. “I made new friends and had an expanded experience derived from these unusual circumstances.”
The Remarkable Class of 2020
Estero High School Principal Michael Amabile calls the Class of 2020 “amazing.” He’s been personally contacting students on their birthdays to maintain a connection.
“Caps and gowns, graduate yard signs and a virtual graduation that honors every graduate are planned,” promised Amabile.
The yearbook is ready, and the clock is ticking toward graduation. Instead of a yearbook signing, graduates were able to write their well-wishes for classmates on individual yard signs placed in front of the school—a lasting memento of this unusual senior year for each member of the class to keep—funded by the Estero Education Initiative.
The Estero High School Class of 2020 started the year with hopes and dreams wrapped around senior prom, senior bash at Universal Studios in Orlando and many other momentous events marking one’s final year in high school — culminating in that long-awaited Graduation Day with proud friends and family members watching as they cross the stage.
Estero High teacher Heather Morse has made tremendous efforts to celebrate graduating seniors, says Amabile, by organizing a socially distant senior breakfast outside Beef O’Brady’s and putting together a virtual prom with videos of students, staff and administrators in their formal wear, dancing at home.
Tears and laughter, hugs and good-byes would have filled Estero’s halls and classrooms during their final days at school as students who shared many years together prepare to part ways for the military, college and careers.
Now many goodbyes may be virtual. Yet, this resilient class chooses to press forward, taking their penchant for finding the silver lining with them.
“Their senior year has ended in trial by fire, but in spite of disappointments, they have risen to the challenge,” said Lee County school board member Chris Patricca. “These students have the ability to go forward as adults and change the world for the better.”
By D.K. Christi