How senior year changed in a pandemic


On Friday, May 1, at precisely 8:20 p.m., car horns blared, fireworks exploded, and the clanging and banging of pots and pans amid shouting and screaming could be heard throughout the streets of Center Moriches. The onslaught of activity was part of a special tribute to the Center Moriches High School’s Class of 2020, in response to the news that schools would not reopen for the remainder of the academic year due to the coronavirus pandemic, leaving a big question mark for graduating seniors.

Senior year is usually filled with a flurry of memorable activities, such as prom, senior picnic and a commencement ceremony, but this year is an empty calendar, as school officials grapple with how to handle these monumental events during a global pandemic.

In the meantime, administrators, teachers, staff, parents and community members have rallied together to plan a variety of tributes to the Class of 2020 – the Friday, May 1 tribute was just one of many. Jeremy Thode, associate principal, has been at the forefront of organizing several of these special tributes.

“The high school administration and staff are working tirelessly for the seniors in trying to provide experiences that are meaningful and as memorable for them as possible during this incredibly difficult time,” Thode said.

Prior to the tribute, the school sent out emails, texts and made robocalls advising the community of the planned, surprise tribute, encouraging community members to participate. Seniors were told by their families to be outside at 8:20 p.m.

Patty and Ryan Person, along with their son, Rylee, a sixth grader at Center Moriches Middle School, eagerly waited for 8:20 p.m. to arrive, at which time they enthusiastically took serving spoons to metal pots in honor of the Class of 2020. Despite not having a senior themselves, the Persons thought it was important to partake in the festivities.

“If my son was a senior during this time, I would want to know that the town was supporting him,” noted Person. Her husband, Ryan, is a Center Moriches alumnus.

Another way to pay homage to the Class of 2020 is a video salute, organized by administrators, teachers and staff of the Center Moriches School District. The nearly 40-minute video, that is posted on the district’s website, features administrators, high school, middle and elementary teachers and athletic coaches giving personal messages, handwritten notes, inspirational words and heartfelt congratulations to students, many of whom they themselves have taught and known since they were young children.

Thode opens the video by telling seniors: “We are trying to put a smile on your face. Our hearts are heavy as we know your senior year has been interrupted by COVID-19. But stay strong and be patient.”

School superintendent Dr. Ronald Masera continues: “We know this is not the senior year you thought it would be, but we hope that you can look back at all of your days at Center Moriches and have wonderful memories and a great sense of pride.”

Some teachers, such as Clayton Huey Elementary School teacher Lisa DeFrese, took a stroll down memory lane in her video post. She served as both a kindergarten and fourth-grade teacher for many members of this year’s graduating class, and reflected on events and popular trends from the years that she taught them.

DeFrese pointed out that in the academic school year 2007/2008, George Bush was the United States president; the Boston Red Sox won the World Series; and Web- kins and Xbox 360 were popular toys. That year, her kindergarten students enjoyed a field trip to an apple farm and made leprechaun traps. Fast forward to 2011, when Barack Obama served as president and the ever-popular “Game of Thrones” premiered; her fourth graders weighed and carved pumpkins and participated in the traditional fourth-grade science fair; and ended the school year with a field trip aboard the Circle Line cruise around Manhattan.

When DeFrese reflects upon the current 2019/2020 year, she highlights the “hoarding of toilet paper and Lysol wipes” and “social distancing,” but concludes by noting that she is confident that students will “succeed through it all.”

For some teachers, their video posts hit close to home, as they have a son or daughter who will graduate. Longtime social studies teacher and soccer coach, Chris O’Brien, gave a special shout-out to his son Liam, a graduate and member of the boys varsity soccer team, calling him his “hero” and adding, “may you score all your goals.”

Parents have also joined forces to acknowledge their senior sons and daughters as well as their classmates. A group of moms organized a pictorial tribute at Clayton Huey Elementary School, where photo boards of each of the 138 graduates are proudly displayed along the lawn. Gillian Castiglione and Cara Hromada worked in conjunction to see the tribute to fruition. Castiglione’s daughter Grace, and Hromada’s son Danny, are both members of the Class of 2020.

Castiglione said she was motivated to do something special reflecting on her own senior year. “The second half of my senior were some of my best memories. I developed friendships and memories that I will always remember, and I hated to think that my child wouldn’t get to experience that,” said Castiglione.

Hromada felt the same way, but was equally disappointed that, as a parent, she wouldn’t be able to enjoy the traditional activities that culminate a student’s high school career.

“The senior events are just as much for the students as they are for the parents; we [parents] reached this milestone, too. It’s incredibly disappointing not to be able to experience the celebrations that were planned for them at school,” said Hromada.

Neither mom knew that the other was mulling over ideas to salute the Class of 2020 until each reached out to a local sign company, East End Sign Design, for help in creating the signs.

“I was told that another crazy mom was working on the same thing – it was a match made in heaven,” Castiglione mused.

Castiglione and Hromada spent several weeks scouting out potential locations before deciding that the elementary school grounds were the perfect place for the pictorial tribute. They also collaborated on the designs for the placards.

“One of the events that seniors will not be able to do is the traditional walk through the hallways of Clayton Huey Elementary School in their caps and gowns,” Hromada noted. “I wanted to figure out a way to get the community involved in the celebration since our seniors can’t celebrate with their peers, teachers and staff at school. Putting the signs out front of Clayton Huey Elementary is perfect since it’s where a majority of students started and will be seen by so many people.”

Funds to help pay for the signs were collected from generous families and local businesses, said Hromada, to help pay for the signs including the Bernaths, Caputos, Castigliones, DeJohns, Hillers, Matos, Passaros, Sudanos and Walthers, Dockside Fabrics and Five Star Construction.

Senior Class advisor Laura Sandberg-DeJohn has known many of this year’s graduates since they were in elementary school. A 1990 graduate of Center Moriches High School herself, and also the mother of a graduate, Hallie, Sandberg-DeJohn said, “I’m a lifetime resident and graduate, as was my father and his mother. This senior class has a very special place in my heart, and I have a special connection with them. Some of my fondest memories are my experiences in Center Moriches High School. Everyone was like family.”

DeJohn noted that the senior class organized a food drive through Helping Makes U Happy as a way to thank the community for all it has done to acknowledge the Class of 2020. “I know that these students are resilient and will come through all of this even stronger,” said Sandberg-DeJohn.


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