Notre Dame High School senior Quentin Autry found graduating during COVID-19 to be “a period of self-reflection.”  Mike Ehrmann photo
Notre Dame High School senior Quentin Autry found graduating during COVID-19 to be “a period of self-reflection.” Mike Ehrmann photo
" If any group of people could tackle a chaotic future with optimism … it’s the Class of 2020. "
When students of the Class of 2020 pictured their graduation year, it included class trips, traditional senior proms, and final sports seasons. Eighth-graders looked forward to school dances, play performances and saying goodbye to teachers they’ve known for nine years or more – anything but what has transpired since March.

Though none would have elected for social isolation during this milestone year, many have grown and met challenges of school during COVID-19 in unexpected ways.

Lessons from Home

Forced to adjust to a new way of learning and interacting in a virtual environment, high school seniors and eighth-graders faced an additional challenge: to make the best of a year that should have been filled with memory-making outings and traditions.

Senior Quentin Autry, student government president of Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, found that the past few months were some of the most difficult to date.

“I have never experienced so much loss in a short amount of time, and at times, it was difficult to cope,” he admitted. “However … I learned so much about myself and the people around me. The most vital lesson … was the importance of my classmates … I always had the support of my friends, even if it had to be through a computer screen.”

 “It is still hitting me hard, that I will never return to Holy Cross [Preparatory Academy] as a student,” Matthew Zeimba said of his Delran high school. The school student president said that he has “learned to cherish … the memories I have made at Holy Cross, with my closest friends, my classmates and my teachers … I will remember [them] for the rest of my life.”

Marissa Vizzoni, class valedictorian at Notre Dame High School, learned that “patience is truly a virtue, how to stay connected socially and how to learn remotely … everyone was adjusting to the times, and I had to as well … I also learned how to keep myself focused on school while at home with a million distractions.”

“Throughout this whole pandemic, I was reminded of the value of family,” noted Paula Narvaez, a senior at Trenton Catholic Academy, Hamilton Township. “Despite the circumstances, the time spent at home allowed us all to grow closer.”

Madison York, eighth-grader in Holy Cross Academy, Rumson, found that learning from home stretched her abilities. “I’ve never been great at learning on computers, but I’ve learned how to adapt more with virtual learning,” she explained. “The teacher has always helped me more [in person], but being on the computer … I think we’ve done well.”

Sacred Heart School eighth-grader James Polashock also found the online format a challenge. The Mount Holly valedictorian said, “I learned to rely on my own thoughts a lot more, because the teachers are not right there to answer your question.”

At Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, Princeton, senior Aditi Mehndiratta said the most important lesson she learned was that “I have wasted way too much time fretting about things that truly just have no impact on long-term happiness. At the end of the day, people are all that matter.”

Senior Bexy Duarte found that “support from our schools is so important, and my Trenton Catholic Academy family did an amazing job … I believe that without the support of my teachers and school family, I would have struggled a lot more than I actually did during COVID-19.”

Upended Plans

For many graduates, the coronavirus has altered their college and high school plans for the fall. And it some cases, it has reinforced them – as was the case for Duarte. Though unable to participate in campus summer activities for new incoming students, “COVID-19 and the effects it had on our schools actually increased my desire to become a high school teacher, because I want to be able to help young adults in the future the way that my teachers have helped me.”

York had hoped to try out for the cheer team at Red Bank Catholic High School, where she will be a freshman in the fall. In spite of tryouts being postponed, she remains optimistic. She said she’s curious for when she’s older, what she’ll tell people about all she learned during the pandemic.

“It’s going to be interesting to tell this story to people who haven’t been through it,” she said.

Mehndiratta’s father was one of the earliest serious cases of COVID-19 in New Jersey – and as she watched her father cling to life for two months, the college acceptance letters she had been so eagerly awaiting became secondary. “My dad was rapidly deteriorating at the hospital, and I could not remember what it felt like to care so much about something that mattered so little,” she said.

Her father survived, and the entire experience has left her hopeful. “We face even more uncertainty as some of our college campuses may open in the fall while others will not – but … if any group of people could tackle a chaotic future with optimism and resilience, it’s the Class of 2020.”

Focus on the Faith

Along with keeping up with their studies, many in the Class of 2020 used their time in quarantine to deepen their prayer life and learn more about what it means to have total reliance on God.

Vizzoni admitted to questioning her faith after learning about the sudden death of Carolyn Graham, a beloved teacher at Notre Dame.

“After many prayers, I was able to accept that I do not know what God has in store, and that I should trust in him,” she recalled. “I had many long talks with my grandmother, who kept reminding me that God was looking out for us and that he listened to our prayers.”

Narvaez also used the quarantine time to foster her prayer life. “I was inspired to grow closer to God and to dedicate more time in my relationship with him. Doing so allowed me to find comfort and peace whenever I felt uneasy about something.”

She also became more motivated as a student, Narvaez said. “I plan on pursuing a career in nursing, and after seeing how challenging yet incredible it is to be a healthcare provider, I am devoting myself even more.”

For Autry, the past few months have been a period of self-reflection in which he “learned a lot about myself and what I am capable of … I saw a level of resilience in myself I never had to reach before …  I’ve also learned how important leadership is during difficult times. Being the president of the school, I focused on relieving the stress my fellow classmates were enduring … As a student government, we dedicated ourselves to bringing joy back into the Notre Dame community.”

Polashock said that he “grew spiritually because when I was struggling … there was only one person to talk to – God. I also grew educationally because I learned to analyze problems more in depth.”

Duarte said she aimed to rely on faith “that everything would turn out fine,” and she acknowledged how the Trenton Catholic Academy teachers and counselors played a large role in making themselves available to share comments, questions and concerns, and saying prayers at the beginning of each virtual class.

“It set a great mood for the rest of our virtual time together,” Duarte said. “Checking up on one another motivated us all to keep working hard, and to continue to take our classes and education seriously.”

“I feel like I have grown a lot because of the [pandemic],” Ziemba reflected. “Being stuck in quarantine, not being able to go places or see friends, has really affected me and others mentally. However, overall I believe … I became more of an optimist. I have grown spiritually as well; I have been praying much more frequently … I pray that we all get through this extremely painful and difficult time together.”