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WXPR's We Live Up Here series is a home for stories that focus on the people, history, and culture that make the Northwoods of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan such a unique place to live.

The Uncertainty For Graduating Northwoods Seniors

Northland Pines School District

For graduating seniors in Northwoods high schools, things have not gone as planned. Besides having to do online learning, missing out on the prom and spring sports, the school year is ending with virtual graduations. And for those students planning to go to college this fall, there is still uncertainty how that will go.

Students, parents, and friends gathered around their computers on Sunday May 31, for Eagle River’s Northland Pines High School graduation ceremony. As Principal Dan Marien explained a couple days before graduation, the students and staff made the best with a virtual ceremony.  

“Every student will have a picture of themselves with a cap and gown. We will have a program that looks very similar to any year program. We will have the same speakers. We will have music. We are going to try to hold tight to as close to ‘normal’ or a traditional ceremony as we possibly can,” he said.

Despite the school’s efforts, no one thinks that a virtual graduation is as good as one done in person. Marien continued, “There is a lot of disappointment out there for sure. Staff, students, parents, everybody is disappointed.”

Although missing graduation is a disappointment, for Northland Pines graduating senior Dane Gleason, the biggest adjustment has been learning at home, which meant not going to school and interacting with students and teachers.

“I definitely miss coming to school every day and seeing my friends. Not only my friends but my teachers as well,” he said.

Classmate Amy Deditz shares this sentiment.

“I miss the people so much. Especially my teachers.”

When we told Principal Marien that his students mentioned that they miss the teachers, it gave him pause

“Yeah that breaks my heart. And I can promise you that their teachers feel the exact same way. Both groups, teachers and students, both feel, and rightly so, pretty hollow that there was never any goodbye. One of the heartbreaking things about the situation for our seniors especially is the lack of closure.”

Northland Pines is planning an event for seniors, parents and teachers to meet later in the summer or next fall when they can all gather safely and gain some form of closure. School guidance counselor Kelly Wranosky believes that such a ceremony will be important.

“A lot of them are upset about graduation. Because we can’t have a physical graduation, so that has been a mental health challenge for some of them. They feel like they are missing out on such milestones. There is nothing they can do so there is no one they can blame.”

Wranosky notes that students are also frustrated and anxious about the uncertainty in their lives after graduation. This is especially true for students planning on going to college. As of now, many colleges and universities have yet to decide what will be happening this coming fall. Options include online learning, on-campus instruction with some restrictions, or some hybrid model.

Northland Pines high school senior Deditz is scheduled to attend the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh this fall but she has strong opinions about online learning.

“I am more concerned about digital learning if they do move classes online. Because I did not  enjoy the digital learning that I had to do these past couple months.”

If the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh decided to have all of the classes online, Deditz is leaning to taking a gap year and not attend this Fall.

According to a Carnegie Dartlet survey of 2,800 graduating seniors, Deditz is not the only one who feels that way about online learning. It found that roughly 33 percent of students will cancel or defer their enrollment if their campus does only online learning. This is not great news for colleges and universities who depend on tuition dollars. A last minute one-third drop in tuition revenue this Fall would be difficult to bear. The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Director of Admissions Marc Young said that the school had to alter its recruitment strategy.

“Recruitment year for college admissions has expanded. Specifically speaking to the UW system, we moved our application deadline an entire month so students can now apply in the month of August.”

As a result, admission counselors are staying in contact with students right up until the start of school. How many students show up, however, will seem to depend upon the nature of the COVID pandemic and the decisions that individual institutions make regarding the extent to which instruction will be online. 

There is still a lot of uncertainty for these graduating seniors. The only thing we do know for sure is that this will be a graduation that everyone will long remember.

James M. Skibo is Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Illinois State University. He is the author of five books, including two written for the general audience, Ants for Breakfast, and Bear Cave Hill. In 2021 James moved to the Madison area and is now the State Archeologist.
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