Raise a Glass to the Class of COVID-19

Maybe they will help build a post-pandemic world (or so I hope).


My senior year of high school was all about parties, prom, one last wild class camping trip, and midnight diner runs with friends before we all sped away to our far-flung future lives. We stayed up all night after graduation, knowing that we were on the brink of brand-new worlds.

My youngest son, Gabriel, a graduating high school senior, has been sleepless a lot this year, too. But that’s because he, like the rest of the members of what I consider the class of COVID-19, already lives in a world that is transforming in a way that seems apocalyptic rather than promising.

This is not the senior year any of the estimated 3.7 million members of the class of 2020 imagined.

Nearly all of the kids graduating this year were born into a world recently rocked by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. They have never known an America that felt bulletproof. But they never expected a pandemic to wreck their prom.

My curly haired, extroverted son’s final tennis season matches, senior beach house party, and graduation ceremony have all been canceled. He hasn’t been able to “chill” with most of his buddies in person for two months. (Though he’s managed to meet a few friends on porches or in parks for exercise in quarantine catch-ups.) He was accepted to college, but he’s unsure if the campus will even be open in September.

There's no question that Gabriel (far right) and his friends are entering a worrisome world, writes Lise Olsen.
There’s no question that Gabriel and his friends are entering a worrisome world, writes Lise Olsen.  Lise Olsen

As online classes and final exams end, these graduating seniors want to gather and celebrate with friends and family, but fear they could infect beloved grandparents and other older relatives with a deadly virus if they’re not careful enough.

The leaders of his high school canceled the original celebration set for May 22 at Houston’s NRG Stadium, though they recently unveiled plans for a smaller event in June limited to two guests per senior in the high school’s much smaller outdoor stadium. Students are asked to keep their distance and wear both masks and gloves.

As a parent, I want to celebrate, too. But there’s no question that my son and his friends are launching into a more worrisome world than I did. I fear from constant doomscrolling of news stories, health statistics, and science journals that the district’s decision to host a June ceremony could spawn a new cluster of cases. I’ve already seen how some proud parents have been tempted to schedule their own graduation parties with a bigger guest list than experts recommend.

And yet, I look into the face of my son and his friends and find hope. They are worried about money and their futures. And they are disappointed, but not defeated, by this final test—the one they never expected.

I know my son and other Texas teens of his generation are brave, smart, and resilient kids who’ve already seen homes wrecked and worlds transformed through hurricanes, like Harvey, Ike, and Rita. Some of his friends’ homes still haven’t been fixed since Harvey hit in 2017.

This spring, I have seen my son shoulder responsibility for weekly shopping—wearing a mask—and for meal-making too. And I know that his plans to major in biology and hopefully one day become a physician will likely be shaped by the medical revolution unfolding as researchers worldwide band together to battle coronavirus.

He and his friends, these smart 18-year-olds, know that their college years also could be radically altered through the global rethinking of our interconnected, collective futures both during (and hopefully after) this pandemic.

Perhaps the members of the class of 2020 will ultimately remake a world far better than the one that existed when I graduated—a time in which we thought mostly (and selfishly) of ourselves.

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