About 40,000 Iowa 12th-graders marked graduating from high school with caps and gowns. For some, there were also face masks.
“Each and every one of you have made it here, through the worst conditions the world has ever faced,” Des Moines North senior speaker Braeden Okic told a crowd of fellow graduates on May 30.
COVID-19 struck in the spring of 2020, when Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered schools to close. By fall, each school had developed its own plan for studying while staying safe. Urban and rural Iowans alike had to adapt. IowaWatch followed several students in the last months of the school year.
Senior Ikilas Hasan, who migrated to the United States from an Ethiopian refugee camp in 2014, met with family and friends, clutching her diploma from Des Moines’ North High School. She’s the first member of her family to graduate from high school.
Brooks Trom of Martensdale-St. Marys had a life-changing senior year. He was diagnosed with cancer in the fall and the community rallied around him. After undergoing treatment, he was declared cancer-free in March. He returned to the baseball team this summer.
At Sergeant Bluff-Luton in northwest Iowa, Kylie Schrad reflected on a senior year that included a COVID-related quarantine, performances in band and drama, and earning prom queen honors in a night that put the pandemic on hold.
North has about 1,100 students in ninth to 11th grades, according to Department of Education enrollment numbers. Sergeant Bluff-Luton has nearly 375, Martensdale-St. Marys 125.
The members of the Class of 2021 share a bond of ending high school amid a pandemic.
“We all have it in common,” Trom said.
Hasan: A migrant’s story
Ikilas Hasan’s senior year at North required online learning, helping take care of her three siblings and working as a cashier at a Des Moines grocery store.
She still managed to graduate in the top 25 percent of her class, compete in track and cross country, and prepare for nursing studies and athletics at Grand View University.
“It was the most challenging year,” Hasan said.
She arrived in the United States in 2014 as a refugee, moving from Eritrea in eastern Africa to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. Her father, Aadey, currently lives in Sudan. She hasn’t seen him since age 5.
“I don’t even have his picture,” Hasan said.
Her Iowa life has been busy, but rewarding. Her siblings are 15, 14 and 5. She helps her mother with care, from getting them ready for school to feeding them.
After her graduation ceremony, her family hosted a party for about 50 people.
“We ate a lot of cake and African foods,” Hasan said.
More than 20 languages are spoken by North students. After commencement, African students and family members danced to music in celebration as songs boomed through a portable speaker. Hmong students were joined by women wearing intricate, colorful textile dresses. One graduate wore a sash with flag-like symbols of America on one side, Mexico on the other.
Among the attendees: A patchwork of hijabs, African headwraps and camouflage ball caps. The graduation program included names from Assumani to Zaldana-Rockwell.
At the Knapp Center, an arena on the Drake University campus, graduates wore masks and sat on white folding chairs spaced several feet apart.
A Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps color guard entered the arena floor, wearing masks. When the National Anthem played, about 20 students retook their seats.
The senior class president, Getsemani Hernandez, spoke to the graduates about the effect the pandemic.
“Everything we worked for crashed down before our eyes,” said Hernandez, who described herself as a first-generation student who achieved her American dream.
The Des Moines school district, Iowa’s largest, went to an online learning plan over health concerns due to COVID-19.
“You learned how to learn from a computer screen when you couldn’t come into our school,” Principal Ben Graeber told the crowd.
A spray of confetti on a computer screen for completing an assignment was the meager way students celebrated, in some cases, Hernandez said.
But North students persevered. They’ve struggled with economic adversity. According to state figures, 86.97%of North students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, one of the highest averages in Iowa.
That shared challenge helps bind students from all over the world together.
“Our neighborhoods are the purest form of America,” Okic said in a speech to students. “Here, everybody’s the same.”
COVID-19 brought a new fight for students. Still, they survived.
“Throughout this whole pandemic, it made me realize what I had,” Hasan said.
Trom: Life comes full circle
Brooks Trom, a senior who was a three-sport standout, looked forward to his final high school year. He would play eight-man football, return to the state basketball tournament and finish his baseball career for Martensdale-St. Marys.
But life threw him a curveball.
Trom, whose school is located in rural Warren County, was diagnosed with leukemia last November. He was banged up and bruised during football – much more than usual – and immediately underwent chemotherapy.
He was able to go to an online learning plan for the school year. People wore masks and socially distanced themselves, which helped keep him safer than in a “normal” school year.
“If it’s going to happen, this was the best year for it,” Trom said.
Members of his community followed the motto “family doesn’t fight alone.” People donated money and food. His basketball teammates shaved their heads and wore T-shirts emblazoned with supportive words.
Students in a pandemic grew into a more tight-knit group.
“I definitely think this year’s class is a lot closer than ever before,” Trom said. “It’s like a bond.”
Trom was declared cancer-free in March, as the school’s basketball team appeared in the state tournament. He will continue undergoing treatment for the next 3 ½ years, he said. He’ll attend the University of Iowa in the fall.
Trom’s last chance to play high school sports was summer baseball. He visited his doctor on the first day of practice and asked if he could play, with some limitations.
The doctor agreed to let him play in the outfield and pinch run.
“That was negotiated a little bit,” Trom said. “I was very happy. I was going to take what he was going to give me.”
After a year with health concerns in a pandemic, it’s nice to be a kid again.
“It feels normal out there,” Trom said.
Schrad: A diploma and a tiara
Kylie Schrad traded her mask for a prom queen’s crown.
The Sergeant Bluff-Luton senior wore a mask to school for all but the last week of classes, when the state dropped restrictions.
It was a year of adaptation.
There was no homecoming. Students ate lunch in a lecture hall and walked specific hallways to avoid contact. In band, Schrad wore a mask adapted so she could play clarinet.
Schrad spent time in quarantine after her mother developed COVID. She went to an online learning plan.
She remained active in theater – she played the role of Abraham Lincoln in the school’s production of the play “Keeping Mr. Lincoln” with a stovepipe hat and no beard.
About 130 graduates attended commencement at the school’s football stadium. They sat on chairs while family and friends sat in the stands. Now she’s headed to Sioux City’s Western Iowa Tech Community College to study surgical technology.
Schrad stood on the stage and heard the cheers. For the class of 2021, it was a welcome sound.
Earlier in April, they had a taste of normalcy.
The prom on April 10 was a special night. Schrad was surprised when she was announced queen from the stage.
“My date had to nudge me to go up there, she said.
A golden tiara with a heart was placed on her head. She was awarded a sash. Tyler Lahaie shared the stage as king.
Schrad wore a peach-pink gown with poofy shoulders and ruffles, spaghetti straps and an open back.
The outfit sparkled with glitter.
“It was kind of like a princess,” Schrad said.
Students brought masks and wore them at times. Some slow danced. It was a normal night in a very abnormal year.
When “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond was played, everyone sang along and those dancing stepped close, in a big circle in the middle of the floor. It was a tradition the students performed at every school dance before COVID-19.
John Naughton is a freelance reporter and photographer. He worked for several decades at the Des Moines Register covering high school and college sports.