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High school students miss end-of-year traditions as coronavirus spreads

"Although it’s not an ideal situation, the safety and health of people around the world is much more important than a prom,” said Jessica King 17, of New Jersey.

On the day of the prom, Maggie Clark, 17, slipped into her mauve A-line gown and slid on her bedazzled rhinestone Converse.

From her Pennsylvania home, she FaceTimed with a friend while they put on their makeup and prepared for what would be an unforgettable evening. Then she headed outside for photos with her parents.

“I have some amazing memories from that day,” Clark said recently. “Like, my family and I had fun and just messed around. It’s like a good memory to have from this scary time.”

Taking photos with her family was as close as Clark would get to the prom at Upper Dublin High School in Fort Washington. Like so many other rites of passage that U.S. teenagers look forward to each year, the March 21 event was postponed indefinitely because of the coronavirus pandemic.

For high school students across the nation — particularly seniors — prom, graduation and simply saying goodbye to friends are all on hold while schools stay closed in an attempt to stop the spread.

Several teenagers who spoke to NBC News said they’re trying to cope with the ambiguity while remaining optimistic that they will one day experience some end-of-high-school traditions.

“Our prom has not been canceled as of right now, but just about every event is up in the air,” Jessica King, 17, said. “We have no idea what is going to happen to our school show, prom, graduation, senior showcases, or even our London school trip that is supposed to happen in June. But we’re staying hopeful.”

King, who lives in New Jersey and is a senior at Academy for Performing Arts at the Union County Vocational Technical Schools, said the event weighing most on her is the school musical, “Into The Woods.”

“That might sound silly, but it’s my senior show and I’m playing the Witch — and the school show has been my favorite part of the year since I was a freshman,” she said.

Despite her hope that the show will go on, King said if social distancing helps to stop the spread of the virus, she’s all right with missing out on a few high school experiences like the prom.

“I’m glad to be participating in social distancing because I know that it’s the best thing we can do to put an end to the virus. I’m happy to have an online senior year if that means I’m helping out,” King said. “Although it’s not an ideal situation, the safety and health of people around the world is much more important than a prom.”

While stuck at home, some students are using video chatting services like FaceTime and Zoom to stay connected and entertained. At first, some thought it would be fun to have time off from school, but after more than a week apart, the novelty has worn thin.

“Me and my friends have all just been stuck in our houses recently, and it’s not really as fun as we thought it would be,” said Joshua Frey, 17, a senior at Hayfield Secondary School in Virginia.

“However, with FaceTime and other apps, in which you can call other people, it’s not too, too bad, but it’s still not very fun.”

Frey, who attended the prom last year, said he thinks it’s only a matter of time before this year’s event is called off.

“It’s still going to suck if my senior prom does officially get canceled,” Frey said. “I’d probably be sad at first, but it’s for everyone’s health, so it’s not too big of a deal. But, like, still it just sucks to have to miss out on an experience that everyone seems to see as like a big anchoring part of their high school experience.”

It was the delay and potential cancellation of events like the prom, senior trips and even graduation that drove home the severity of the coronavirus outbreak for some students.

Isis Ross, 18, a senior at Plano West Senior High School in Plano, Texas, said her fear of the coronavirus began to grow the week after her spring break when schools began closing.

“I started to get scared about whether I was going to walk across the stage or if I was ever going to take my senior pictures,” Ross said. “Our school sent out a mass email saying our prom was going to be delayed and that really made me realize that this is really bad what’s happening.”

For students like Clark, who is a junior at Hatboro-Horsham Senior High School, there’s always next year when it comes to major milestones. But for seniors like Ross, if the prom doesn’t happen this year, there won’t be a second chance.

“I was really excited to be able to go to prom. My school only does senior proms so this would be my only chance to go to a prom,” Ross said.

Although many students fear they’ll miss out on the experiences they’ve looked forward to throughout grade school, many teens who spoke to NBC News said their advice to their peers is to remain positive.

King, who is holding an ongoing “TikTok Prom,” encourages students to take videos of themselves dressed up in the outfits they would have worn and share it to the platform. Staying occupied and optimistic is the best way to survive the end-of-the-year quarantine, she said.

“My heart breaks for other teens whose shows, sports seasons and other events that they were looking forward to were canceled,” King said. “The most we can do for ourselves is support one another and stay hopeful that things will work out in the end.”