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Supporting high school seniors during COVID-19

Photo illustration by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications
Photo illustration by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the lives of many people, including students. High school seniors are being robbed of making precious memories as more and more schools confirm they will be closed for the remainder of the academic year.

Seniors will miss marking important milestones of their final year, including graduation and prom. They will not share these times with their closest friends and classmates. Many seniors will also miss time with their extended family who planned to come to their graduation ceremony. They face a future filled with uncertainty.

It is important not to minimize the pain seniors may be feeling during this time. 

“As witnesses to the upheaval and change, young people may feel a sense of sadness as they recognize the personal and social losses they will endure as a part of quarantines and other responses to COVID-19,” says Chris Wilterdink, director of young people’s ministries at Discipleship Ministries. Seniors have a right to feel sad and disappointed at this time and the best thing their families and churches can do for them is to empathize, rather than minimize their loss.

It is also important for congregations to find ways both to honor their high school seniors while also acknowledging and empathizing with their loss. While Gen Z students are the most digitally connected generation alive, they still treasure in-person contact with friends and loved ones as much as older generations.

Churches can give seniors an outlet to express their feelings, continue to engage in spiritual formation and celebrate the beginning of a new chapter in their lives.

Give students an avenue to express themselves

Self-expression is second nature to young people who have grown up around social media, blogs and podcasts. As churches adapt Sunday school and youth group onto online platforms, they can provide space for seniors and other students to share their anxieties and emotions.

Some may be happy sharing informally with their friends and youth leader over video chat. Others may want to blog or vlog about their experiences or express themselves more creatively through art, poetry or music. If the students agree, the church can share their testimonies on the website and social media and invite the congregation to offer prayers and encouragement. It will mean so much to these students to know their church is listening to them.

There are many other ways parents and churches can offer outlets for students to share their feelings.

The Arkansas Annual Conference has resources for online youth ministry during COVID-19, including articles and suggestions specifically for high school seniors.

Brad M. Griffin at the Fuller Youth Institute shares about posting two large sheets of paper on the wall and encouraging his children to write things they are grateful for on one and things they have lost on the other. “We don’t have to pretend like everything is just fine. We can name what’s lost, and lament it together,” says Griffin.

Give them time to socialize

School (as well as youth activities at church) is not just about education and development. It’s time students spend with their closest friends and peers. Many realize their senior year is precious because it is the last time they will see many of their friends every day. When planning a virtual Sunday school class or youth meeting, be certain to include vital time to allow students to talk among themselves and have fun – just as they would if meeting in the church.

Encourage young people to share fun activities online. Offer different challenges each week, such as creating the funniest meme or writing/performing the best parody of a popular song. St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas hosts daily contests on its student ministry Instagram account that include trivia, scavenger hunts and music video challenges. You can also host Netflix watch parties or share virtual meals as a group.

Honor them during a worship service

Many churches have their own traditions for honoring graduating seniors. There is absolutely no reason not to continue these traditions during COVID-19, and churches that do not have a special service for graduates may want to consider starting one during this time. These traditions vary depending on the church and number of graduates. Some churches invite students to speak or might have perform singers and dancers during worship. Others simply call the seniors forward or name them and offer a special prayer on their behalf. Some churches may give each a gift.

There are many ways these traditions can be adapted for virtual worship. Churches can still offer prayer on behalf of seniors online or invite them to participate in virtual worship in other ways.

Student speakers can talk to the congregation directly from their home computer/device or − providing they practice responsible social distancing − have their speech recorded or live-streamed from the sanctuary. For years, Idlewild Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee, has had a Sunday when all the seniors offer short messages. This year, as they watched a late March service online, congregants saw three seniors each step up to the pulpit and deliver a mini-sermon. Original plans had been to have the students record the messages at home on their cell phones. However, when the young people were adamant about speaking from the pulpit, accommodations were made to record them in an empty sanctuary while safe social distancing practices were followed.

Whatever other recognition the church offers, the pastor or youth leader should announce the name of each student at some point in the service. If possible, show a recent photograph (perhaps a senior picture) of each while reading their names. Encourage their families to invite other relatives to join the service that morning. If the church usually gives gifts to its seniors, have those delivered to their homes during the week. If you are still unsure what to do ask the students themselves how they would like to be recognized and the best way to use media to do it.

Today’s seniors are enduring loss and uncertainty about the future during what is supposed to be one of the happiest times of their lives. Instead, many feel sad, angry or anxious. The best thing our churches can do to continue to pray and watch over them in Christian love, letting them know we see their pain, we care for their well-being and we celebrate their accomplishments.

Philip J. Brooks is a writer and content developer on the leader communications team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tennessee, USA. Contact him at [email protected]