(Clockwise from left) Seniors Khya Gaines of Vicksburg High School, Mary Beth Tingle of Warren Central High School and Nick Tello, Warren Central High School

VICKSBURG — As the spring semester of her senior year wore on, Khya Gaines, valedictorian of the Vicksburg High School class of 2020, began focusing her attention on making memories with her classmates: senior prom, field day and graduation.

But those moments were quickly snatched away when Mississippi schools closed for the remainder of the year as COVID-19 cases have continued to spread across the state.

“I was more upset than sad,” Gaines said. “During the school year, it was all about people completing the year and at the end of the year, it was actually gonna be the time we had fun together and (was going to be) more relaxing.”

Gaines is one of nearly 29,000 high school seniors in the state’s public schools this year who are missing out on much anticipated rites of passage like senior trips and walking the stage for an in-person graduation ceremony. Gov. Tate Reeves made the decision earlier this month to close school buildings for the remainder of the school year, halting all of those senior year moments.

Khya Gaines, Vicksburg High School

To help encourage those students during the pandemic, community members around the state have stepped up and  “adopted” students to show support in varying ways – cards, letters, money or mentorship, for example.

In Holmes County, alumni in the school district sponsored over 198 seniors, said Tchula native Sequita Harris-Hood, who co-organized the initiative with Holmes County native Marcus Baker. People who volunteer to adopt provide students with gifts and resources to help them be successful post-graduation. Harris-Hood said this is more than giving students money, it’s about giving them tools and guiding them through college.

“Being where we’re from, you don’t have a lot of classes to teach students the importance of credit, not getting a lot of student loans. Students may not want to go to college. Some may want to go into the workforce,” she said. “I hope other communities can adopt a mentor program whereas each child coming through can be reached by someone.”

Those interested in sponsoring a student can like or become a member of a Facebook page, then reach out to the administrator of the page or comment under the most recent posts to get information on seniors who need sponsorship.

Shella Head, a community activist, bragged on the efforts of Harris-Hood and Baker, adding Holmes County is more than what news headlines broadcast —“the poorest county in the poorest state in the country,” she added. 

“People just assume people in Holmes County are just lazy and don’t wanna do nothing. That’s not true,” Head said. “These kids are hurting because none of them will ever cross the stage, so we said let’s adopt all of them.”

Head, who adopted two seniors, said this is truly a community effort without involving the superintendent or local officials.

In Vicksburg, Dawn Stevenson and her cousin saw a need to do something for their children and their friends. They created the Facebook page Adopt a High School Senior Vicksburg and Warren County Class of 2020 to reach other parents to support seniors with letters, cards, or other gifts. Within a week, nearly 400 students were adopted, she said. The page currently has 3,551 members.

“(We wanted) to show kids they weren’t forgotten and that they are loved,” she said. “They worked hard these 12 years and we made sure they are recognized.”

In addition to the page, Missy Tello, parent of Nick Tello, a senior at Warren Central High, knew there was more to be done, so she asked parents ways the district could honor seniors. With Missy Tello spearheading the conversation, district officials agreed to have each student’s graduation filmed and to create a video to showcase the moment while also putting signs in each senior’s yards.

Other residents created Facebook groups and posts for districts like Oktibbeha County and Rankin County. In Sunflower County, individuals interested in sponsoring a senior can choose $25 to $50 gold, green, and white packages for Thomas E. Edwards Senior High School, Robert L. Merritt High School and Gentry High School seniors. Gifts range from a frameable portrait sign, custom senior gear and a gift card. There is also a nationwide group, consisting of 44,000 members, highlighting seniors across the state.

Disappointed and saddened by the end of their last year, students expressed gratitude for the encouragement and aid they’ve received from communities. Gaines, for example, received care packages, dorm supplies and Cash App requests from people in Texas and Mississippi.

Nick Tello, Warren Central High School

Several students said that while the acts of kindness help, they can’t help but dwell on the memories the class of 2020 lost because of the pandemic.

“This would’ve been my first year to prom. I asked someone to prom and she said yes,” Nick Tello said. “I don’t know if we’ll be able to have it and we were supposed to go to indoor percussion world championships in Dayton, Ohio and the rest of the season got cancelled. My last band and choir concert and graduation. Band banquet. Choir banquet. It all got ripped away.”

Clarksdale High School senior Quinana Dotson shared Tello’s sentiments, saying the shortened year caused a feeling of uncertainty. 

“(I was) uncertain about how everything will continue from our grades to even senior activities like how are we going to do prom? And graduation, that was the thing I was looking forward to the most,” Dotson said.

Mary Beth Tingle, a senior at Warren Central High School, added she worried about her preparedness for college.

“I was taking English Comp II, AP Calculus, and AP Chemistry and both are very important for my major and the classes I will be taking next year at Mississippi State University,” Tingle said. “I was worried about the information that might get missed. How long is this gonna put me behind? Am I gonna be prepared when I go to college?”

Despite the circumstances, the students said looking forward to what’s to come as eased the loss of senior year activities.

Gaines is ready to begin the next chapter of her life, majoring in Biology Pre-Med at Xavier University of Louisiana.  She advised the class of 2020 to “keep your head up.”

“Things aren’t going the way we planned, and it’s not our fault and it’s nobody’s fault we’re going through this,” she said. “It’s best to see the positive outcome. We’re done with school and we can move on with our lives … even though we can’t do anything about it now, let’s think positive about what we can do after this.”

View our Class of 2020 COVID-19 Stories page and, if you are a Class of 2020 senior, scroll to the bottom to share your story.

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.