'Everything on hold': Grads cling to hope, cope with uncertainties during pandemic

The Class of 2020 is being forced to put its future on hold in the midst of a public health crisis that is cancelling classes and closing schools. Graduates say they accept the need for extraordinary measures, while also expressing hope, fear, and disappointment.

COVID-19 pandemic has hijacked high school seniors' final months of school

Jonah Deaton, 22, is an American photographer who is also set to graduate from college in Kentucky. He arranged these cap and gown pics of himself, and told CBC News "This is a really scary and confusing time." (JD Photography)

Grade 12 student Brooke Hardstaff donned her grad dress and walked the near empty halls of her high school in Lloydminster, Sask., before the doors closed last week.

She posed for a picture wearing a facemask.

Hardstaff, like many high school seniors in Canada, is coming to terms with the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has hijacked her final months of school and much-anticipated graduation festivities, as well as creating uncertainty about post-secondary plans and job prospects.

"I wanted to finish, and not just be, like, 'hey, you graduated' by email," Hardstaff, 19, said. "It's kind of upsetting because it was kind of, like, my year — with all the other grade twelves — it was 'Class of 2020.'" 

Hardstaff says she "powered through" 13 years of school, despite struggling with grades and bullying, and that she dreamt of walking across the stage to accept her diploma with family, friends and teachers cheering her on.

 "You're just looking forward to someone saying, 'Good job, you made it,'" Hardstaff said.

Brooke Hardstaff, 19, wore her grad dress to drop off her final English essay after all classes were suspended due to Covid-19. (Submitted by Audina Hardstaff)

The rugby player wants to hold onto a bit of hope that she'll get her "big milestone" graduation moment but she also accepts that controlling COVID-19 means restrictions must take precedence.

Last week, Saskatchewan's Education Minister Gord Wyant said the province had "effectively ended the school year." The government suspended classes indefinitely and guaranteed that all high school seniors who are on track to graduate will do so.

Students will be granted a final grade based on their mark as of March 13 — and bumped up to a 50 per cent grade in any class they're failing — and could be given the opportunity by their teachers and school division to improve grades, possibly through distance learning.

Education interrupted

Tristen Newcombe, 17, a Grade 12 student at Sacred Heart High School in Yorkton, is worried about missing months of science education, such as biology and physics, given her desire to study animal health sciences.

"You have to put everything on hold that you've basically dreamed of since you were little. ... I've always wanted to go into vet school and work with animals. Then, coming into Grade 12, it was like, 'I'm finally getting there.' And then it gets cut short," Newcombe said.

"It's an eye-opener, definitely, because everything just stops. And now we have to wait for other people to figure out that this [virus] needs to be taken more seriously."

Sacred Heart High School in Yorkton, Sask., arranged this impromptu grad photo after the province suspended all classes to combat Covid-19. Its caption: "Some of our grads. We love you Class of 2020! " (Facebook/Sacred Heart High School)

Other grads said they're worried about missing out on academic and athletic scholarships.

Newcombe said the school guidance counsellor told her classes won't resume until September but the high school principal assured the graduating class that it could try to salvage a ceremony at some point in the future.

"There's people already selling their [grad] dresses, so there's a couple girls who don't really have hope that we'll get a grad. ... You never know, we could end up having a grad, even if it's later, like next year. That's totally fine." 

A few tears

Brooke Hardstaff's mother, Audina Hardstaff, seized the opportunity to snap photos of her daughter in a grad dress on Thursday. She went with Hardstaff to Lloydminster Comprehensive High School to drop off an English essay and speak with a few teachers. 

Audina took pictures of her daughter standing in an empty gymnasium and in front of cleaned out lockers.

It still feels surreal to her, she said, and makes her sad that her daughter is getting a premature and harsh orientation to the "real world."

Brooke Hardstaff's mother says she shed a few tears while she took these photos because she feels her daughter is missing milestone moments that she'll never get back. (Submitted by Audina Hardstaff)

"When we did the walk through the school, I just thought, 'Wow, this is such a moment that she'll never get back,'" Audina said.  "There were a few tears."

She remembers that her son's graduation celebration seemed to last three months, with Grad Spirit Week, barbecues, banquets and other graduation rituals.

'A proud parent moment'

Like many parents who have held their kids hands to get them through school, literally and figuratively, while feeding, clothing, coaching, tutoring, comforting and cheering them on, Audina was looking forward to the graduation ceremony for herself, too.

"It's a proud parent moment," Audina said. "My kids kind of struggled a little bit in school ... so having that graduation picture, and those pictures of cap and gown, is a huge proud accomplishment as a parent. You're like, 'I did it. I got them to the end.'"

College student Jonah Deaton says the Class of 2020 is "hurt and searching" and he took this self-portrait because he "just wanted to provide visual representation of this moment." (JD Phography)

Audina, a small business owner in Lloydminster, has her own economic worries amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, so she's finding it difficult to find the right words to comfort her daughter.

"I say, like, I don't know how to parent, I don't know how to comfort you, because I'm trying to wrap my own brain around it," she said.

"I just said ... we need to stick together as a family and we need to take it day by day."

At this moment, Audina isn't giving her daughter flowery speeches about her bright future and taking on the world. Instead, Audina has told Hardstaff, "This will make you stronger."


Bonnie Allen

Senior reporter

Bonnie Allen is a national news reporter for CBC News based in Saskatchewan. She has covered stories from across Canada and around the world, reporting from various African countries for five years. She holds a master's degree in international human rights law from the University of Oxford. You can reach her at


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