School, interrupted

Wausau East High senior Mara Stahl writes about about graduating in the middle of a pandemic and preparing for college.


The coronavirus pandemic and resulting school closures have hit high school seniors  especially hard, for a multitude of reasons. Spring is when many choose colleges or other careers. It would have been their final high school sports or music and theater season. It’s when they line up summer jobs to save up for college. For some, their final grades may play a role in scholarship money. The traditional May graduation ceremonies have been postponed (until August for Wausau East and West high schools), and even canceled in many places across the U.S.

     And although most of Wisconsin’s stay-at-home order was nullified by the state supreme court on May 13, the ruling did not lift school-related closures.

     City Pages asked Mara Stahl, a senior at Wausau East High School, to write about her concerns and emotions about graduating this month in the middle of a pandemic, and preparing for college this fall.

I know that many college-bound high school seniors, myself included, are feeling pretty uncertain about many things right now. A lot of people are worried that our colleges may not open in the fall of 2020. I worry that I may not be getting the “full college experience” that I’ve heard of.

     Missing out on my last few months of school, and possibly the last few months that I could be spending with my friends before school, is extremely disheartening.

     One of my friends is supposed for leave for Berlin, Germany, in early August to take a gap year while also taking language classes at a college there, but now isn’t sure she’ll be able to go for the amount of time that she had planned. I’ve talked with many people going to the same school as I (hopefully) will be attending—the University of Minnesota—and almost every person has spoken about their fear of not being able to begin in the fall, or even being forced to take online classes.

     Even now, as I’m searching for a potential college roommate, I have to wonder: Will we even be able to stay on campus like we’ve been planning?

     Sometimes I wonder what extents college campuses will take to protect students if we do come back in the fall, or if it will not be enough to prevent another outbreak.

     Preparing for college, and trying to work and save money for living away from home, also suddenly became more difficult. I know several people with restaurant jobs who are no longer working at all. My place of employment (also a restaurant) has been closed for two months now.

     This is taking away essential funds that I could have had for my next year on my own.

     The stimulus checks will help some people my age. I was under the impression that I would not receive one, as some information about the program stated that anyone over the age of 16 and counted as a dependent would not receive this money from the government. Though it turns out I did receive a check—perhaps because I filed a tax return last year—I know that many others in the class of 2020 may not.

     Thankfully that $1,200 stimulus money helped make up for my lost wages, which is so important at this time. Right now money is tight, and I need to earn money, because my family and I are not sure what the future holds financially. Due to my loss of work at the restaurant, I’ve applied to work at a grocery store in June and July, so I’m slightly less worried about income, as grocery stores will remain open.

     However, this does make me rather anxious about my health, as I will encounter many people each day that I work.

     The pandemic lockdown has changed my outlook in the bigger picture. It has made me much more cautious with my money, and I recognize how I always need to have savings no matter the situation or how secure I feel.

     Although I’ve read about high school seniors changing their college plans because of coronavirus recession worries, ultimately, cost did not factor very much into my decision to attend a state university rather than one of the private colleges I was also considering. But if my family were in a worse situation, it most likely would have.

The social distancing lockdowns this spring took some especially heartbreaking tolls on some of us. I will never have a high school prom. I’m not sure how unique my situation is considering the circumstances, but I never attended my Junior Prom. I did want to attend my Senior Prom this year, but unfortunately I will never have that experience.

     I know many students are upset about missing their last, and maybe only, high school prom. One of my friends at Wausau West spent hundreds on a dress that she may never wear. People at East High are trying to plan an alternative Senior Prom this summer, but no one’s sure if it will actually happen or not, considering that, at least for now, the state is still advising against large group gatherings.

     I did not participate in high school sports, but instead I’ve been involved in the East End Players theater productions. Though I personally was not part of my school’s spring musical, Fiddler on the Roof, I know many people who are/were, and it seems unlikely that the plans for the production will come to fruition. The managers have stated they will try to hold performances in the summer, but of course, we are unsure as to what will happen in the coming months. Some are considering dropping out of the musical due to their plans to work or to pursue other interests during the summer.

     I know that many people are disappointed they spent so much time on their last theater production as Wausau East students, and may not even be able to play the parts that they had intended after all. Last year, many of the seniors of the East End Players cried during their last show of Les Miserables after reflecting on their years in the program. Before that last show in 2019, every member of the cast who was a senior would give speeches, and talk about how much theater meant to them and what they’ve learned. It’s a very emotional time, and I’m not sure my peers this year will be able to have the same sentimental experience, or at least not in the same way they had imagined.

     Most of us also won’t have the sentimental experience of graduation celebrations. I personally am not upset about not having a big party — my friends and I most likely would have just gathered to celebrate the end of high school together. However, I was looking forward to having family visit and celebrating with them.

     What I’m more upset about is that I will most likely have much less time with my friends before we leave for college or elsewhere. Two of my friends plan to leave the country for school (Montreal and Germany), and I most likely will not see them often. I’m hoping that in August it will be safe enough to give them hugs goodbye, but of course, many things could happen between now and then.

     Academically, things are wrapping up differently than I expected. I’ve been taking IB classes [the International Baccalaureate program that can even provide college credits], but the final IB exams were cancelled. We will still get credit based upon our internal assessments and grades in the classes—basically IB will estimate what we would have earned if we would have taken the exams.

     And because the last three months of school was done entirely online, Wausau high schools are not giving out traditional last quarter grades. This may or may not affect final GPAs for seniors. Though a lot of my friends aren’t happy about the new grading system, it won’t affect my college chances or GPA much. But of course, like a lot of things happening right now, we won’t know what effect this will have on us until later on.

Editor’s note: Mara Stahl is the daughter of City Pages staffer Lisa Lanier. We thank them both for sharing Mara’s personal story.