‘A Crash Course in Life’: Loudoun Celebrates Commencements in the Age of COVID

They walked across stages in empty auditoriums. They missed senior proms and senior trips. Last week, Loudoun’s high school graduates finished up a year like no other with smiles, grace and a few tears.

Because of COVID-19, this year’s seniors missed big milestones and are moving into an uncertain world. For grads and their parents, there’s a sense of loss but also some unexpected blessings.

For the Bernard family of Leesburg, this spring was supposed to be full of parties with plenty to celebrate. Their son Thomas graduated from Heritage High School while his older brother Remi, also a Heritage alum, graduated from Concordia University in Montreal.

“It was a double whammy for us,” said mom Jade Bernard. “Coming into 2020, we expected lots of pomp and circumstance: graduations, prom. … It wasn’t like that, but I think at the end of it all we accepted it and it made us stronger as a family. This was just a bump in the road and we made it through it.”

For Thomas, missing the milestones like prom and graduation was disappointing, but it was losing those last months of school—spending time with classmates and teammates before moving on—that hit hardest. Thomas was elected captain of the boys’ soccer team his senior year after having played for the varsity team since freshman year.

“I was really excited for this year, and I know a lot of other athletes were, too. To get the season pulled one week into starting was a little upsetting. It was definitely one of the hardest parts about it,” he said.

For Thomas, the individual mini-ceremonies that Heritage and schools around the county set up for grads and families were meaningful and brought a sense of closure.

“It was good to see all of the teachers and administrators work their hardest to try to make the end of year special for us and try to help all the kids graduate,” he said. “I think everybody felt special about graduating and ending the year right.”

Thomas is heading to James Madison University to study computer information systems, and he knows that COVID’s impact is just beginning. Colleges and universities are still finalizing decisions about what next year will look like, and students continue to adapt every day. 

For Thomas’ dad, Pascal Bernard, the pandemic has offered an unplanned lesson in flexibility.

“It’s kind of like a crash course in life. You can plan all you want. You can wish all you want. Unfortunately, sometimes it just doesn’t pan out that way and you have to manage your expectations and your disappointments,” he said. “It’s a setback, it’s a reality check, but we’ve noticed that it leads to all kinds of opportunities and creativity and surprising outcomes. … This generation will have to take that to heart and be more resourceful than others.”

Broad Run District Supervisor Sylvia Glass, whose youngest son Taylor graduated from Broad Run High School in Ashburn last week, agreed.

“They’ll be able to roll with the punches. If something doesn’t go their way, whatever plans that they have that may be altered for some reason, I think they’ll be able to roll with the punches and be able to make those changes,” Glass said. “They’ll have a mindset that they can do something different.” 

For Taylor, missing out on senior prom and other end-of-year traditions was disappointing, but he and his friends are focused on the future. Taylor, who heads to Virginia Tech in the fall to study business information technology, is known as a planner to family and friends. He’d already made all of the prom arrangements for his date and friends before COVID closed schools in March.

Taylor Glass, whose mom Sylvia is Broad Run District’s county supervisor, graduated from Broad Run High School last week. He’s headed to Virginia Tech to study business information technology. [Courtesy of Sylvia Glass]

“You don’t get your prom and all your fun last events. But we still got to graduate and still have college to look forward to,” Taylor said. “It’s a crazy, never-happened-before thing—and it’s our class. I definitely believe that we will bounce back. … I know it’ll be fine in the end.”

Broad Run’s graduation featured 10 separate stations for grads, including photo ops with cardboard cutouts of LCPS public information officer and snow day celebrity Wayde Byard and NIH infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci. Each student wrapped up the experience with family photos in the school’s stadium.

Like other college-bound grads, Taylor has made peace with the fact that higher education will look very different next year as institutions around Virginia and around the country plan for the 20-21 academic year. On June 8, Virginia Tech President Tim Sands announced that the school will open in August for on-campus classes, but will “pivot to online instruction and exams after Thanksgiving break” in anticipation of a possible second wave of infections. Sands’ announcement also noted that plans could change as the summer moves forward. So high school students’ end-of-year distance learning is likely just a small taste of things to come. It’s a reality check of sorts in high-income, high-achieving Loudoun.

“It really is a humbling experience. For a lot of people, things usually go their way, and this might be a time something really doesn’t work out the way they wanted,” Taylor said.

For Glass, who has four sons and a stepdaughter, missing out on familiar traditions with her youngest child has been tough, but there are some silver linings to the shake-up.

“I’ve seen a lot of kids do a lot of good things. I’m sure that they’re going to go and be successful and change the world. It’s been amazing to see so many young kids voicing their opinions these past few weeks,” she said.

For Woodgrove High School graduate Kameron Jones of Lovettsville, missing her senior prom wasn’t a big deal. But missing her final LCPS Science and Engineering Fair in March broke her heart. Kameron had worked all year on her project which tackled the topic of disparities in maternal mortality in the U.S. For the aspiring doctor, living through a pandemic as she moves into college is something she won’t forget as she takes her first steps toward a career in medicine.

“I was already looking at all the gaps in our healthcare system,” Kameron said. “It’s eye opening all the gaps in healthcare in the country, and I think that this pandemic has really emphasized that. It’s one thing to research it and another thing to see it happen.”

Kameron Jones of Lovettsville graduated from Woodgrove High School last week. She’s heading to VCU to study biology and plans to go on to medical school[Allison Gallagher Photography]

For Kameron’s mom Maria Jones, those missed milestones are disappointing. But spending more time with the first of her three daughters to graduate has been meaningful.  

“I’ve been preparing myself for the letting go and then this feeling that we didn’t have enough time,” Jones said. “Once the pandemic hit, somehow in my mind the countdown kind of stopped. Suddenly, we had time, time to have dinners together. … I know it’s been incredibly difficult and people have lost a lot. It’s been a painful time, but we have time together that we haven’t had for years.”

Kameron, who heads to Virginia Commonwealth University to study biology in the fall, attended a mini-ceremony at Woodgrove with her parents and sisters last Thursday and hosted a small family gathering. She’s hoping to do a small group prom/grad celebration with friends later this summer.

“Everyone has had a very different reaction, and it’s hit all of us at different periods in time. We’re all kind of on different wavelengths,” Kameron said. “While I was really disappointed in the beginning, some of my close friends are struggling now. And so the idea of celebrating is just not in the front of our minds.”

Like many other Loudoun parents, for Maria Jones the pandemic has brought out grit and responsibility in a unique cohort of young adults. 

“I’ve been really surprised and amazed at Kam and her friends and all of the seniors that I know for the way they’ve handled it,” she said. “I think having had the last three months with her, I don’t want her to go but I really know now that she’s ready. I feel much more secure about her ability to go out there and handle anything. If you can get through a global pandemic, it completely changes your perspective about what’s important.” 

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