At a Chicago high school graduation, a call to rise above COVID’s toll

The fight to rebuild school communities after two years of pandemic-era uncertainty.

Gerlia Baker and Keshawn Arnold sat side by side in a high school auditorium on Chicago’s Southwest Side — she in a white robe with the gold salutatorian stole draped around her shoulders, he in the gleaming blue robe most of the Richards Career Academy’s 40 soon-to-be graduates wore. 

The two cousins were members of the high school class that felt the brunt of COVID’s upheaval – a disruption that brought them closer even as it wrenched their academic trajectories wider apart.

“Keeping it real: You have been cheated,” Richards principal Ellen Kennedy told them and their classmates from the stage. “This pandemic robbed you of so many of the high school experiences you so richly deserve.” 

Since the second half of their sophomore year, the outbreak has tested public schools across the country: It shuttered campuses and abruptly shifted learning online. It left families grappling with illness, death, and economic hardship. It ushered in crippling staff shortages and quarantines. 

For Gerlia, Keshawn, and countless teens like them, those cascading challenges sank GPAs. They upended school athletic seasons. They sapped motivation and brought on depression. They also opened up reserves of strength and determination that at times surprised them. 

The past nine months were supposed to help students bounce back in time for graduation, but a sense of normalcy has remained elusive for them and their small school in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, where half of the students are Black and half are Latino. 

As Gerlia and Keshawn, both 18, stood on the cusp of their post-high school lives, they knew the pandemic had also put its stamp on their next steps. It would, they suspected, reverberate well past the moment when they walked out of the aging Richards building for the very last time.  

That evening on stage, under a white, blue, and gold balloon arch that spelled out 2022, Kennedy nodded to that reality. But she also urged them to refuse to let COVID define them. 

“Fate took your high school career in a direction we did not expect,” she said. “Don’t let that consume you. The past is the past.”

Chalkbeat Chicago followed Gerlia, Keshawn, and the Richards high school community throughout the school year, to learn about efforts to reengage students and navigate the challenges of another pandemic year. The graduation at Tilden High School, the first traditional ceremony in three years, was yet another marker of both the obstacles and triumphs of the COVID era for students in Chicago and around the nation.

A line of students, wearing blue or white caps and gowns, wait in a line to enter an auditorium ahead of their high school graduation.

The graduation ceremony at Tilden was the first traditional ceremony Richards students had for three years.

Christian K. Lee for Chalkbeat

Graduation festivities return at Richards

Earlier that evening, Gerlia and Keshawn waited outside Tilden’s auditorium for the start of the ceremony. They were at the head of one of two lines of students gearing up to file inside, where families waited.

In the hallway, robes swished gently on restless bodies, almost drowned out by animated chatter in English and Spanish. Caps featured an explosion of color: plastic flowers and butterflies, the green, white, and red stripes of the Mexican flag, the Nike check mark symbol with the words, “Just Did It.” 

Gerlia’s cap was trimmed with white fur. She stood still and poised, glancing at her phone with studied indifference, tuning out the excitement and fidgeting around her. Keshawn’s cap read “021 Free Black.” He was his usual high-energy, jocular self: bouncing on the balls of his feet, chatting with friends, pacing to the back of the line, donning a pair of sunglasses and taking them off, calling out to the school’s dean of students and basketball coach Corbin Leeks. 

“Keshawn, get over here — stop playin’,” Gerlia said sternly, barely glancing up from her phone.  

“You guys ready on this side?” asked a staffer wearing one of Richards’ custom “The tassel was worth the hassle” shirts. 

“Hey, we need, like, five more minutes,” Keshawn called back. “We’re too nervous.”

Education leaders and experts are just beginning to capture the pandemic’s toll on the country’s public school students: Graduation rates dipped in at least 20 states. (In Chicago, the on-time graduation rate slipped slightly while the five-year rate hit a record high.) National test score studies suggest slowing academic growth and widening racial and income disparities. Attendance this fall lagged pre-pandemic rates markedly, hovering around 83% on average in Chicago high schools.  

Of the 45 Richards seniors who started in the fall, one moved, one dropped out, one transferred to an alternative high school and two will take another crack at finishing up over the summer.

But numbers can’t quite capture the ways in which Gerlia and Keshawn struggled — or how each dug deep for a resilience they didn’t know they had. 

Gerlia juggled school with captaining the basketball team, caring for four younger siblings, serving as a student rep on the local school council, and working a job at Wendy’s that had her closing out the store at 1:30 a.m. several times a week. Still, she stayed focused on her goal of becoming a valedictorian and landing at the right college. 

Earlier this spring, fatigue set in prematurely, and Gerlia lapsed briefly into the flat, unmotivated state that she knew from the previous year of remote learning. She got her mojo back by the end of the spring, and though another student — Deysi Coronel, the captain of the soccer team — narrowly edged her out for valedictorian, she felt she had finished her high school career strong.   

Keshawn, on the other hand, returned in the fall shaky after largely disconnecting from school the previous spring. As with many other teens at Richards and other schools, his efforts to get back on track were sometimes hampered by spotty attendance and behavioral issues. A basketball standout, he had a tough season, landing on the bench more often than ever before after clashing with Leeks. But, with occasional pep talks from Gerlia, he made it to the finish line. 

For Richards, end-of-the-school year events helped reclaim some normalcy. After a two-year hiatus, prom was back at a downtown hotel. The school also held once again its traditional senior luncheon. 

In the spring of 2020, Richards held drive-through graduation ceremonies in a parking lot. Last year, it hosted six mini-graduations, gathering up to a dozen seniors to confer their diplomas hurriedly while most family members waited outside. 

This year, with the return to Tilden’s auditorium, Kennedy said the day before graduation, “We’re back to regular-ish end of year events.” 

Now, as the ceremony was about to begin, Gerlia and Keshawn stood at the head of their line, the sound of “Pomp and Circumstance” inside the auditorium rising in anticipation. The cousins exchanged a final glance and plunged into the joyous, raucous mass of family members, who snapped photos, bounced fussy babies, leaned against walkers, cheered, and called out the graduates’ names. 

The graduating seniors strode slowly toward the stage decorated in the Richards’ blue and white colors. 

A sea of excited family members cheer on their loved ones from their seats at a graduation ceremony.

Family members cheer on their loved ones as they graduate from Richards, celebrating their students’ milestone achievement following the chaos of a global pandemic.

Christian K. Lee for Chalkbeat

The pandemic changed students’ take on college

After Kennedy’s opening remarks, Leeks, the dean of students, called Gerlia, “a natural leader,” to the stage to give her salutatorian speech. 

“Go ahead, queen!” a woman screamed from the crowd as Gerlia stood and strode confidently to the stage. 

Gerlia spoke about the setbacks the last two-and-half years had brought: Remote learning tested her and her classmates. The loss of her grandmother to cancer damaged her support system irreparably. 

She thanked God and the staff at Richards for looking out for her along the way. 

“We lost half of sophomore year and all of junior year,” she told her classmates. “We are still adjusting to being back, but I am grateful we have each other. I feel we are the best senior class to ever graduate from Richards.”

She said she was especially proud of Keshawn for “getting back on track to graduation.” 

“Congratulations, class of 2022,” she said “You made it.”

At times this spring, Gerlia has been haunted by the question, “What if the pandemic never happened?” 

She likely would have ventured farther for college, perhaps at one of the HBCUs teachers and family members have been talking up – and perhaps on an athletic scholarship, if the virus had not upended her later sports seasons. 

But the turmoil made her crave the safety of home and feel a responsibility to be closer if her mother needs help. She is headed to Western Illinois University to study journalism. A visitor from the school earlier this spring convinced her it was the right fit, with its wide range of majors and lots of student clubs and activities. 

“Students are really involved at that school, and that’s the kind of place I want to be,” Gerlia said the day before the graduation ceremony. “Richards is the same way. Richards is still coming with me.”

Her thoughts about the summer revolve around paying for college: The university gave her a scholarship, but it doesn’t cover tuition and other expenses in full. She is trying to land more hours at Wendy’s over the summer. At college, she plans to juggle a work-study position and an off-campus job. 

The seats in a high school auditorium are full of upcoming graduates and family members. The auditorium is decorated with blue and silver balloons for the class of 2022.

Forty Richards seniors received their diplomas as this academic year comes to a close.

Christian K. Lee for Chalkbeat

Keshawn is still unsure about his fall plans, but he’s eyeing Kennedy-King College in the City Colleges of Chicago network. Without the pandemic, Keshawn — a promising sophomore on the cusp of COVID — says he would have been in a stronger position, with a higher GPA and a better track record in basketball. But while the outbreak dealt a blow to college attendance, particularly for Black and Latino boys, Keshawn says it left him determined to go.

“If the pandemic didn’t happen, I don’t know if I’d have gone to college,” he said. “But I missed out on a year of school, and I want to make up for that.”

His major? “I’ll let it come to me when I get there,” he said. “I’m just going with the flow.” He plans to work at FedEx and play basketball this summer. 

But first, both Gerlia and Keshawn are taking time to simply savor making it to graduation day. 

On stage at Tilden High School, Yeridiath Bejar, a Richards counselor, took the podium to confer the diplomas. 

“Let’s get started,” she said. “Vamos!”

Keshawn was third to stride across the stage, giving himself a clap as he advanced toward Kennedy. He towered over the principal as they paused for a photo with his diploma. Gerlia did a little dance when she took the stage, then pranced toward Kennedy to catch up.

After all 40 seniors had crossed the stage, the new graduates turned to face their families. Kennedy instructed them to move their tassels from right to left. 

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Kennedy said, as applause and cheers from the stands swallowed up her voice. “I now present to you the class of 2022.” 

Mila Koumpilova is Chalkbeat Chicago’s senior reporter covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Mila at [email protected]