Voices of our seniors: Hope while facing an evolving summer and uncertain fall

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MERRILL/MARSHFIELD, Wis. (WSAW) -- Trinity Kanitz didn’t expect to be driving through her school’s parking lot picking up her diploma from masked staff members in a drive-by to drop off supplies and pick up graduating materials on Friday. She’s a graduating senior from Merrill High School headed to UW-Stevens Point this fall, with plans to study elementary education.

Trinity Kanitz waits her turn to get a graduation picture during a drive-by at Merrill High School, May 22, 2020 (WSAW Photo)

“We make it work,” she says with a grin. “I was looking forward to all the things that I’ve seen seniors do in the past, running through the school full speed, yelling at the top of our lungs, getting all our yearbooks signed, crying, hugging everyone. But we make do.”

Trinity is upbeat about the summer, where opening pools in Merrill mean her lifeguard job will go on with an added layer of precautions. She’s not so sure about the Merrill Aqua Jays swim team, where she serves as an assistant coach—but she’s optimistic.

Graduating seniors across the area that spoke to NewsChannel 7 on Friday said their jobs this summer—a key part of paying for college in the fall—are so far secure, and frequently essential amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of them, like the rest of us, are dealing with canceled travel plans or altering the way they spend time with friends.

MHS graduating senior Walker Bathke is headed to Marine Mechanics Institute in Orlando—and working construction through the summer beforehand. Friday, he was one of scores of graduates driving slowly from table to table in the Merrill High School parking lot—dropping off iPads, chatting with teachers, paying any remaining fees, picking up graduating materials, and donning a cap and gown for a picture in case the tentative July graduation doesn’t go as planned.

“I never thought I’d be driving through to get all my graduation stuff,” he noted. He doesn’t know yet if his chosen school will go online or return to in-person come fall—an uncertainty shared by many seniors.

“I’ve had that discussion with a lot of seniors including my own children,” MHS principal Shannon Murray said. “A lot of it’s kinda up in the air…we’re quite certain it will look different, but we’re hopeful that everyone’s back and can get back to school come fall.”

And while today he’s just glad to see the students he hasn’t seen since March 13, he’s worried about their jobs this summer too. Those working at department stores or other essential fields are secure, but others aren’t.

“People who have banked on lifeguarding jobs or traditional kind of summer jobs are right now going to be in a tough spot,” he noted. “I think that will be a challenge for them as well.”

Graduating seniors at Columbus Catholic Schools in Marshfield, where staff lined along the street to say goodbye to them and other students alike on their last day of school for the year, are in similar positions. Ryleigh McGiveron, headed to the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities to study aerospace engineering in the fall, was worried when one of her jobs at the local Hub City Ice Cream shop didn’t open in mid-April. They’ve opened now with precautions—but other plans remain delayed.

“I was hoping to travel around the state and go to some different parks and just do some different things besides staying in town,” she noted. “Even though the stay-at-home order is lifted, for some of my friends it’s not safe for them to go out and be traveling around.” She’s still waiting to learn how UMN will handle the fall semester—but she’s also just focused on enjoying her summer.

That’s Annika Brown’s plan as well, who’s headed to UW-Madison with an interest in international studies—“Try to make the summer as normal as possible,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of my friends but it’s not the same as we can’t go and just…sit at a restaurant or something and do what we normally do.”

MHS senior Henry Grefe has the same perspective, despite a canceled trip with friends this summer.

“It’s kinda like a new normal,” he said, as he chatted about the precautions at his Wal-Mart job and his concerns about school in the fall. “I am a little worried…I wish we could just have a normal start to the school year.”

But ultimately, they’re optimistic about their future.

“It’s something that we can tell everyone in the future what it was like to graduate under some situations like this,” Trinity said. “It’s going to be okay. You will get an experience. It might be a little different than what you’ve seen in the past, but you’ll still get a really good experience regardless.”