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Class of COVID-19: Southern Illinois high school seniors face uncertainty
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Class of COVID-19: Southern Illinois high school seniors face uncertainty

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CARBONDALE — While the Goreville Blackcats hoped their basketball season would end with a state championship, it ended with a press release.

Nick Compton anxiously sat in his hotel room with fellow senior captains Cam Hines, Logan Hankins and Luke Brown when they got the news.

“When (coach) called us in, we were hopeful we were going to play,” Compton said. “Once he told us, it was devastating. Telling a team like we had that we can’t play in our state games — that’s tough.”

After moving forward in the basketball state championship series with limited fans to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Illinois High School Association told participants about 12 hours later that the state tournament would be suspended immediately due to the virus. 

“We feel for everyone who has been impacted, but must put the health and safety of all involved ahead of these events,” Craig Anderson, IHSA executive director, said in a March 12 news release.

“Disbelief. It was just disbelief,” Compton said. “What do you say when you get news like that?”

The Goreville team, which held a perfect 10-0 conference score, made the quiet four-hour trek back to Southern Illinois from Peoria, but Compton said it felt more like 12.

While spending the last moments of his high school basketball career with his teammates, Compton said he just tried to “soak it all in.”

“I was at the highest of highs when we won the super-sectional games and within a couple of games I was at the lowest of lows,” Compton said. “I didn’t want to get off that bus because I knew as soon as I stepped off of that charter bus, my entire basketball career was over.”

Uncertainty in the future

In-person classes are set to resume for K-12 schools in Illinois on April 7 after closing statewide last week due to the COVID-19 pandemic, school administrators across the state are looking to the Illinois State Board of Education for guidance on how to best handle some of the uncertainties districts are facing including grades, athletics and extracurricular events.

Illinois State Board of Education: 'Very real possibility' school closure will be extended beyond March 30

Like Compton, graduating students across the country have been reflecting on the uncertainties of the remainder of their academic year amidst the COVID-19 pandemic as they plan to turn the page into a new chapter of their lives.

“I think this week has been stressful for a lot of us because there’s just a lot of uncertainty in the air,” said Adam Lahlou, the senior class president at Carbondale Community High School. “None of us really know what’s going to happen.”

While there is speculation of the rest of the year being suspended, no final decisions have been made, said Ryan Thomas, principal at Carbondale Community High School. CCHS has not yet suspended the school’s annual prom or graduation ceremonies.

In the prospect of not returning to in-person classes this year, Lahlou said there isn’t one specific event he’s going to miss, but “just being in school.”

“There are just so many different people who I’m never going to see again and who I would like to,” Lahlou said. “You never expect it to potentially be the last time you get to hang out or see someone.”

Mallary Vasquez, a senior at Chester High School, shared similar sentiments to Lahlou and reflected on Chester High School’s Pep Band’s recent performance at the 2020 IHSA Girls Basketball State Tournament.

“I’m glad we got that experience because we were the last group to play for it because everything else got canceled,” Vasquez said. “I also feel really sorry for the bands who weren’t able to go.”

Vasquez said the pep band elected to perform at the girl’s basketball tournament rather than compete in the state-wide band sweepstakes competition.

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“It was in a way a blessing, we gave up a shot at the sweepstakes to go play there and then everything else got canceled and that was our last little moment with each other,” Vasquez said. “It’s just so weird to think about the possibility of school ending.”

Vasquez, along with her fellow seniors, followed the years-long tradition of signing their band lockers at the end of the school year — something typically done in May — the day before Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker's K-12 school closure mandate went into effect.

“I was thinking to myself, maybe we’ll be able to come back after the two weeks but we signed them anyway,” Vasquez said. “We don’t know when we’re going to go back — hopefully before April 30.”

Vazquez has been working alongside theater director Brenda Coop and over 100 cast members and crew for the school’s production of “Shrek: The Musical,” which was supposed to hit the stage on March 19.

Leading up to the company’s last week of rehearsal, the show was postponed due to rising COVID-19 concerns and school closures.

“This was something that popped up so quickly and just changed everything,” Vasquez said. “I know for the seniors, we’re all pretty disappointed, but remain hopeful because everything has just been postponed so far. We’re hoping (the musical) happens eventually.”

Coop said work on the musical, which features over 200 costumes and even a 15-foot dragon, began toward the beginning of the school year in preparation for the spring debut.

She said she remains hopeful of bringing the production to the community and having the opportunity to show off her students’ talent and hard work.

“This is uncharted territory, we’ve never been here before,” Coop said. “We just have to take this one day at a time and pray things will work out for everybody.”

Looking ahead

As for the future, graduating students remain hopeful for the final days of their school year. A resounding message throughout is not taking experiences for granted.

While Goreville’s state basketball run was cut short, Compton said he’s looking forward to the opportunity of playing baseball with his team.

“I think the future is promising. Hopefully, we get through this as soon as possible,” Compton, a Rend Lake Baseball commit, said. “Once everything is over I hope we can pick up life how it was, keep moving on and hopefully get a baseball season in, too.”

Compton said while it may be difficult dealing with uncertainty, it is “something you have to deal with.” He said he has been dealing with it by working out at home and keeping up physically.

“I’m not really taking any time off — I started lifting weights, running, eating healthy, just trying to keep up with my body just in case we do get to play, I’m at my highest potential,” Compton said.

Coop said the Chester High School’s spring production of “Shrek: The Musical” is planned to take the stage April 30 to May 3.

“I have an easy feeling about all of this. I’m not worried for some reason,” Coop said. “It’s out of our hands. I just pray that God takes care of all of this and gets us back where we’re supposed to be, and do what we need to do.”

Vasquez commended the group working on the musical and said looking ahead, they just need “a couple more rehearsals under their belt and it’ll be perfect.”

While being born shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Class of 2020 has lived through multiple major catastrophes. Lahlou said it has forced them to be selfless and resilient.

“I think these are the important life lessons we are getting early on in our lives,” Lahlou said. “Not to take everything for granted and just to keep on learning in the cusps of disaster.”

Lahlou said he hopes students have the opportunity to walk across the stage and celebrate the milestone of graduating high school, but he and his classmates understand the gravity of the situation.

“I’m seeing a lot of frustration, but, at the end of the day, everyone understands this is a pandemic — this is what we have to do,” Lahlou said. “By staying at home and taking precautions, we’re literally saving lives. Sure, I gave up the biggest part of my life at this time, but I’m doing my part.”

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Brian Munoz is a correspondent for The Southern.

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