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How These Students Lost, and Recaptured, the Magic of Senior Year

No spring sports. No long-awaited trips abroad or senior spirit week. Proms delayed indefinitely, and graduations switched to Zoom.

Seniors at New York City high schools have spent the past few months watching as the semester they had anticipated for four years evaporated in just a few weeks.

Despite what they had lost, newspaper and yearbook editors at two schools — Townsend Harris High School in Queens and Curtis High School on Staten Island — had to keep moving.

There was work to do. Since March, they have scrambled to document as much of their lost semester as possible.

“Everything is on pause, but not us,” said Amanda Renzi, an editor of the Townsend Harris paper, The Classic.

Faculty advisers at Townsend Harris and Curtis, acutely aware that high school papers across New York City have been dying out, have long urged their students to produce robust and consequential journalism. For the past few months, they got an unlucky opportunity to do just that.

They have become indispensable beacons of information about canceled events and lost milestones as the coronavirus ravaged New York City. They have tried to make sense of, and cover, a completely disrupted high school experience that has included teachers getting sick and dying, family members losing jobs and relatives and close friends battling the virus on the front lines.

Yearbooks and student newspapers have always defined these students’ high school lives, but never more so than during the pandemic, when writing, editing and designing gave them structure and purpose as uncertainty swirled.

By late June, even after the Zoom graduations had concluded, the students, soon to enter college, were still busy.

They still had yearbooks to distribute, a few more articles to publish and new crop of editors to recruit and train, who themselves face an unknown, and possibly virtual, fall semester.

April 3 to 18.

Those were the foreign-exchange program dates that Cheyanne Richardson had kept circled for months. She had bought gifts in preparation for her planned stay in Milan. She and her father had dreamed about visiting Italy together before he died a few years ago, and the high school trip would have been her first out of the country.

But then …

“It’s my senior year,” she said, choking up. “I can’t do this again.”

The exchange program was one of many milestones that vanished. Lacrosse, softball and all the other spring sports, gone. The spring musical, “Legally Blonde,” and dance show, gone as well.

Yet Cheyanne and other editors had little time to process their collective loss. As the stewards of the school’s yearbook and newspaper, both endeavors of the journalism program, they had to cover the crisis that was upending their last semester of high school.

It was a daunting pivot, especially with everyone in quarantine. But one by one, students began contacting the editors, said Nadia Chin, another editor, with questions like, “Are you guys still doing yearbook? Am I in the yearbook? Do I need to do anything?”

Yes, everyone agreed, the yearbook had to be done.

“Our job is to make memories for everyone,” Nadia said, “and if everyone is not included, then what’s the point?”

Curtis, near the St. George Ferry Terminal, is Staten Island’s oldest high school. It offers an international baccalaureate program and career tracks like nursing for a diverse, immigrant-heavy student body of 2,500, three-quarters of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Cadence Turner oversees the journalism program. A 1985 Curtis graduate, Ms. Turner is one of about two dozen alumni who now teach or work at the sports-crazed school, whose graduates include the baseball legend Bobby Thomson. She is also the soccer coach and a Curtis parent. Her son, David Garvin, the senior class president, will play soccer for Skidmore in the fall — if there is a fall.

Even before the pandemic, editors had talked about the poignancy of this school year. As members of the first high school class born after the Sept. 11 attacks to graduate, they have grown up in a world shaped by school shootings, climate change and racial divisions.

Their sense of urgency intensified in April when Ms. Turner began setting up Google meetings at least twice a week with journalism students, and even more regularly with Nadia, Cheyanne, Greer Gerney, the only junior, and other top editors.

With as many as 22 people on some calls, the students were determined to work first on the yearbook, which is more like a magazine, with longer, reported articles.

Nadia said that one usual feature, “A Day in the Life” of a typical Curtis senior, should be revised to reflect “A Day in the Life of Quarantine.”

“Every day is important,” Nadia said.

One student suggested an article on the dress code for virtual learning.

Another suggested one on how students had celebrated their 18th birthday in quarantine.

Yet another proposed something about the first time a Curtis senior gave blood.

“The camaraderie in the class — I just miss it so much,” Ms. Turner told the students. “When I sit down and do work by myself, it really sucks, but unfortunately that’s the way it is.”

The student newspaper, The Curtis Log, is normally printed every month or so, and distributed at the school. The switch to online publishing presented logistical hurdles.

“Some people who have been writing for us before are not quite as involved because they don’t check their email,” Greer said during one call.

The students wrote about sports and the musical being canceled, as well as the unexpected death of an R.O.T.C. instructor. Nothing made as big an impact as an article on Ed Latourette, a history teacher who died of Covid-19, according to a GoFundMe page his family established. Most Curtis Log articles do not get comments, but 37 students, teachers and alumni paid tribute to Mr. Latourette.

One example: “Wow, I’m at a loss for words 😥 He put up with me my freshman and sophomore year. He passed me and saw potential in me 😢.”

Even as the school year wound down, the student journalists met regularly, with plans to publish articles over the summer to keep the Curtis community informed.

One article might focus on the killing of George Floyd, and note that Eric Garner was also killed in an altercation with the police not far from the school, and that one of his children attended Curtis. Another might report on undocumented immigrant students at Curtis, or students with undocumented relatives, and the economic fallout caused by the pandemic.

At times, the student journalists, with their own plans for the fall uncertain, said they felt as isolated and exhausted as their peers. In late May, Ms. Turner invited Curtis alumni who had worked on the yearbook and newspaper to a virtual party with the current students. More than 40 people attended, with former students offering congratulations and advice.

“I’m sure a lot of things that were planned for this year were thrown out the window and had to be reinvented at the last moment,” said one graduate, Cana Sarnes, who is now a photographer. “But that will stand out as being even a little better because you had to be creative.”

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“Is everyone doing OK?”

Samantha Alzate, an editor at The Classic, was met with nervous laughter from the paper’s writing staff when she kicked off a Zoom meeting with a greeting that once would have been innocuous but has become one of the most loaded questions of the pandemic.

Propped up on her bed and wrapped in a white blanket on a chilly April morning, with Christmas lights strung in the background, Samantha spent a few minutes ticking off the ways the group could try to recreate some of what they were missing with each passing day.

Spring at Townsend Harris, one of the city’s most academically rigorous schools, brings college acceptance season and, with it, the annual college video. For years, students have come to school on a specific day decked out in the gear of the college they have committed to, and Classic editors film hundreds of seniors dancing, high-fiving and embracing.

This year, the paper had to improvise. Over the past two months, editors virtually recorded and edited dozens of TikToks of seniors revealing their college choices.

Every Friday morning since late March, those responsible for the video met online and went over every piece of minutiae they could control to make the video feel special.

Students occasionally called in to the 11 a.m. Zoom meeting a few minutes late, from bed, having just woken up after a late night of working on the video.

All the meticulous planning, Samantha said, “makes me feel like I never left school.”

When Usha Sookai, the arts editor, took on the responsibility for trying to recreate senior events online, she quickly realized how much she and her classmates would never get to experience.

“You have to come to terms with what you’re not going to get,” she said, “and think of ways to fulfill that desire and meaning without being able to do it.”

That message has resonated for the editors at Townsend Harris, a fiercely independent school.

In 2017, students, many of whom live in Queens and are first- or second-generation immigrants, staged mass sit-ins that helped oust the school’s principal at the time. The Classic, which played a major role in the revolt, is one of the new student newspapers in the city that boasts a free press charter, which ensures that school administrators cannot review articles before publication.

The virus has given The Classic a moment to flex its journalistic muscles.

Every year, the paper runs a series called Introducing, which features Townsend Harris seniors reflecting on their years at the school. This year, in addition to seniors offering advice to their younger selves, Introducing included stories about essential workers who are related to Townsend students.

In March, shortly before Mayor Bill de Blasio closed the city’s schools, the Classic team spent a weekend pulling together what Samantha called a “pretty awesome” public records request seeking information from the Department of Education about how many students had been sent home sick from school earlier in the month.

The editors who oversaw all that work were constantly rallying their staff, and pushing for as joyful a crescendo to their frustrating year as possible.

Off camera, they oscillated between determination and weariness.

Isabelle Guillaume, the paper’s third editor in chief, worried about her mother, who had been so excited to watch Isabelle and her sister, a college senior, graduate this year.

Samantha sometimes paused at her closet to admire the prom dress she bought the day before schools were closed and, unless the event happens late this summer, may never wear.

And Amanda, who, like many of her classmates, had spent much of her time at Townsend Harris studying, had seen the end of senior year as a well-earned respite.

“I felt like this was finally going to be, us, free, going out into the world,” she said one April afternoon. “Now it just feels like it’s ruined.”

But by June, the three teenagers were buoyed by the fact they had preserved at least some traditions they had feared they would lose altogether.

Isabelle remembered that horrible day in March when schools were closed, and thought about how much had changed.

“I thought, wow, my second semester has really gone downhill and I’m not going to get it back,” she said. “But the work we’ve been doing has affirmed that I have a purpose here.”

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