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Longwood High School senior: 'It is supposed to be the best time of your life'

Longwood senior Gabby Velazquez says the worst part of not going back to school is missing out on graduation and her prom. Credit: Newsday

Longwood High School senior Gabby Velazquez selected her prom dress in February, as she looked forward to one of the most anticipated high school traditions.

But that royal blue gown hangs in the closet and likely won't be worn for a formal occasion anytime soon. Velazquez, and her peers across the country in the Class of 2020, have had to cope with canceled proms and award banquets, virtual learning and lost sports seasons because of COVID-19.

"It is the golden year in high school," said Velazquez, 18, of Coram. "It is supposed to be the best time of your life — our time to shine."

Long Island high schools hold graduation ceremonies at the end of June, with classes ending for students earlier in the month.

By then, college or other life-changing decisions have been made. Advanced placement exams are complete. There are final concerts. The academic stress has been lifted, and graduates look forward to one last summer with their hometown friends.

But the coronavirus has placed summer jobs on hold, and graduates are concerned about next steps.

"The end part of senior year is the best time of your life in high school," said Locust Valley High School senior Matthew Scicutella, 18, of Bayville. "It's the time you go to school, and it's not too hard. You are going through the motions, you're having fun in class, and that is what we are missing. This was the time to celebrate, and unfortunately this is not the case.

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"Still, people have it so much worse, so you have to be grateful for what we have."

This group of seniors arrived in high school during one of the most intense presidential election cycles in recent history, were sophomores at the time of the Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, and are graduating during a pandemic after their schools were ordered to shut down in mid-March.

"You left that Friday and you didn’t know that would be your last day, last practice, last time seeing your teachers," said Jamie Besendorfer, 17, of Garden City. "You feel like you are cut off too soon … I think to myself that I'm lucky. Me and my family are healthy and safe and I am able to know that there are better times and this isn't forever."

She was looking forward to a summer vacation with her 85-year-old grandma, working as a mother's helper, and seeing her friends before leaving for college at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Those plans are uncertain. Her mother graduated from Garden City in 1988, and, per tradition, wore a white dress for the occasion — a rite to which Besendorfer was looking forward.

Amityville schools have a tradition where seniors dress in caps and gowns to visit every school in the district, greeting the younger students. It's a meaningful event, Principal Edward Plaia said. The seniors get to see their former teachers, and the younger children look up to the graduates with awe, he said. That walk has been canceled due to social distancing rules, but the district is considering other ways to do something meaningful.

Amityville Memorial High School valedictorian Marco Iorio, 17, will go to Farmingdale State College to study electrical engineering technology. He was going to spend two weeks in the dorm campus, but that has been canceled. 

"I feel like this quote — 'The class of 2020 was born during 9/11 and graduated during a pandemic' — was very impactful to me," he said. Yet, he remains optimistic. "That … showed me how we literally have been through a lot, and look where we are now. I feel there is nothing that can stop us if we have perseverance in our goals and dreams and inner desire just to succeed."

Locust Valley Principal Patrick DiClemente said many students are resilient but disappointed, and rightfully so.

"I feel for the students," he said. "I think that students today do a better job than ever supporting one another."

Longwood High School senior Emma Grimes, 18, of Ridge, maintains a routine to cope. She was named the school's lacrosse captain in March, the day before schools closed. 

"I am trying to keep things as normal as possible. I will talk to my friends 24 hours a day and make sure we are always in contact," she said. "The worst thing you can do right now is to be alone. I don’t let my school work pile up … I keep myself organized."

Grimes' friend Anaya Phillips, 17, of Medford, missed her sports awards banquet. She also was planning to get her driver's license, but that is on hold. She hopes she can go to college at Penn State Altoona.

"I haven’t gotten any word that my fall semester will be canceled yet, and I am really hoping it is not," she said.

Parent Amy Iskols of Bellmore was struck by a photo taken by a family friend of her 18-year-old son, Daniel Iskols of John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore, and his friends in their college sweatshirts. The picture was taken after a drive-by “acceptance day” with teachers in front of the school. The seniors are spaced apart and all wearing masks. Daniel plans to attend Cornell University.

"At that moment when it was taken, it just made a statement of the times we are living in now," Amy Iskols said.

Locust Valley High school senior Nils Coffey, 18, hopes the Class of 2020 gets one more chance to be together. He's going to Cornell University to study engineering. 

"My hope is that maybe next year things have turned to normal and we can all see each other again," said Coffey, of Locust Valley. "So that the last time we all saw each other wasn’t some random day in school."

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