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‘First the flood, now this’ | Livingston Parish Class of 2020 starts, ends high school in ‘unimaginable’ circumstances with Great Flood, coronavirus

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Livingston Parish Class of 2020

The Livingston Parish Class of 2020 dealt with the Great Flood of 2016 in the first semester of its freshman year and the coronavirus in the last semester of its senior year. Pictured, top row from left, are Alyssa Crayton, of Albany High; Gannon Allison, of French Settlement High; Ella Otken, of Denham Springs High; Lane Courtney, of Holden High; and Madison Duhon, of Doyle High. Pictured, bottom row from left, are Lawrence Pierre, of Live Oak High; Bryce Felps, of Maurepas High; Mason Sibley, of Springfield High; and Shelby Dorough, of Walker High.

Devyn Hoyt was looking forward to prom, which had been scheduled for April 3.

Hoyt, an Albany High senior, was a member of the school’s first-ever prom committee, made up of a group of students who had planned a festive evening for their classmates at the Berry Barn in Amite. They were still working on decorations when news hit that Gov. John Bel Edwards had closed all K-12 public schools until April 13 in the state’s fight against the novel coronavirus.

The order immediately halted all plans for “our last prom,” and no one knows when they’ll resume.

“Our teachers are trying to plan prom for whenever we get back, but no one knows right now,” Hoyt said.

Gannon Allison, a pitcher and infielder on the French Settlement High baseball team, said he was “devastated” when he realized Edwards’ statewide order would postpone — and possibly cancel — his senior season.

He’s been doing workouts at home to stay in shape in case the postponement is lifted, but like everyone else, he doesn’t know what’ll happen in the coming weeks.

“It’s tough, really tough,” Allison said. “I’m hoping it’s only postponed, but it looks like there’s very little hope of that right now.”

Ella Otken, a senior at Denham Springs High and a competitive piano player for a dozen years, was looking forward to her end-of-the-year piano competitions and getting her “12-year” medal, something she had worked for since she first sat down at a keyboard.

But there were many other events and activities Otken was anxiously awaiting as well, such as prom, senior banquet, choir concerts, senior trips, and — the big one — graduation, the shining moment for every high school student.

Now, she can’t do anything but sit indoors and pray for some good news.

“For this to happen,” Otken said, “is unbelievable. There’s so many things we’ve been looking forward to for so long, and the possibility of not having them at all is crazy.”

The novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, has affected everyday life in a way that no other single issue or event has in recent memory.

Schools are closed, businesses are shutting their doors, workers are losing their jobs, hospitals are getting overwhelmed, and people are dying as the nation and the world grapples with the effects of the unknown disease.

For the Livingston Parish Class of 2020, it will be the last footnote in what has been a trying four years.

These same seniors, who may have unknowingly walked the halls of their schools for the last time, had just begun their high school journeys when the Great Flood hit Livingston Parish in August 2016.

The flood occurred in their first semester as freshmen, and the coronavirus has occurred in their last semester as seniors.

One life-altering event to start high school, another to end it.

Or as one senior called it, one “crazy coincidence.”

“I don’t know what it is about the Class of 2020,” said Bryce Felps, a senior at Maurepas High and the Livingston Parish Public Schools High School Student of the Year. “First the flood, now this. It’s just a crazy coincidence.”

No school for a month

Back in August 2016, Otken was excited to start school at Denham Springs Freshman High, across the street from where her older sister went to high school.

Further east in the parish, Hoyt was ready to join the varsity basketball team and eager to start the next phase of her life.

A 15-minute drive away, Mason Sibley didn’t know what to expect when he entered the halls to start his freshman year of high school, which he viewed as just “another middle school” back then.

But he wasn’t too worried about it. After all, there was plenty of time ahead.

“I had four years to make memories,” said Sibley, now a senior.

But shortly after these three students and roughly 1,500 others in Livingston Parish entered high school, it was put on hold.

From Aug. 12-13, 2016, prolonged rainfall resulted in catastrophic flooding across Louisiana, most notably here in Livingston Parish, where thousands of houses and businesses were submerged in as much as 30 inches of water.

The Livingston Parish Public Schools system, which saw damage to at least 15 schools, postponed operations until mid-September as students, faculty, support staff, and administrators scrambled to rebuild their damaged campuses — and in many cases, their own homes.

And while most students were able to report back to their regular school, there were some who were forced to “platoon” to nearby campuses for the rest of the first semester. Three schools — Denham Springs Elementary, Southside Elementary, and Southside Junior High — still haven’t returned.

The flood was an eye-opening, unforgettable experience for nearly everyone in Livingston Parish. As the saying went back then, “either you flooded, or you know someone who did.”

Madison Swearingen, now a senior at Live Oak High, recalled having to give up her bedroom for three months as her family worked to repair her grandparents’ damaged home. Sibley recalled having “a lot” of friends affected by the flood and the emptiness he felt when he went back to school to find he wouldn’t have the simplest of things, “like lockers.”

For Otken, the flood hit her family hard, wrecking her childhood home and destroying the place where she had taken her first steps and lost her first tooth in only “a matter of hours.”

And after eagerly waiting to go to school next door to her sister, they were now spread two miles apart, both platooning to different schools in the Watson area as their schools were being rebuilt.

“To have the flood destroy that part of my high school life was devastating,” Otken said.

However, there was a silver lining, Swearingen said.

Though school was closed for a month, it gave students a chance to be there for one another during perhaps the most devastating natural disaster to ever hit Livingston Parish. Friends could help each other gut their homes, they could go out and grab dinner, or they could simply “be there” for one another.

And with the flood, you could see a definite end “somewhere down the line,” Swearingen said.

“We could at least be there for each other and support each other during that time,” she said. “You knew things would get back to normal eventually.”

But less than four years after life in Livingston Parish was turned upside-down, it’s happened again.

Only this time, it’s also happened to the rest of the world.

News spreads fast

Before Gov. Edwards issued his order to shut down schools starting March 16, Sibley never believed that school would actually be suspended.

But as he and others sat in drama class, going over details for Springfield High’s big production of “Peter Pan,” he got a text from one of his buddies. Ten minutes later, the official announcement came over the intercom: All K-12 public schools would be closed until April 13.

At that moment, Sibley said “every face in the class dropped.” Then, they all started hugging one another.

“Towards the end, it was a bittersweet feeling because we knew they were taking the right precautions, but we were bummed out and sad because we’re gonna miss each other so much and this is such a special part of our year,” Sibley said.

At Maurepas High, Felps was hoping to single-handedly win a game of “Jeopardy” against a team of juniors in an ACT Prep class, but the game didn’t start because everyone was watching the news.

Then, one girl said “the governor has cancelled school.” Soon after, the messages started “pouring in,” prompting someone to check out Edwards’ official Twitter page.

“At that moment, we were like, ‘Yeah, it’s happening,’” Felps recalled.

The news that schools would close for a month spread like wildfire, especially in classrooms as students shot off one text after another.

Allison was chatting with two friends in math class when he overheard the news. Only one thought popped in his mind at that moment.

“The first thing I thought about was baseball season and what would happen with that,” he said. “Now we might not be able to go back to school.”

While underclassmen generally rejoiced at the prospect of not having to go to school for a month — and possibly the rest of the year — the news had an entirely different impact on seniors.

Edwards’ order has left many seniors wondering whether they would ever be with their fellow classmates again, while others have had a revolving set of questions roll through their heads.

What does this mean for things like prom? What does this mean for me and my friends? What does this mean for graduation?

Swearingen, who was set to begin her final season as a pole vaulter on the track team before schools closed, recalled seeing underclassmen in the halls “running around all excited” when they heard the news.

The mood was much more somber in her classroom as everything set in.

“It’s crazy to think that I may have experienced some of my last moments as a senior without even realizing it,” she said. “When it first happened, it didn’t really hit us. But now that we’ve all talked about it, everybody’s cried at some point. I’ve cried.”

Now what?

One question has been on the minds of millions since the coronavirus pandemic started stretching its long arm over the country.

Now what?

Unfortunately, the answer doesn’t provide any clarity.

No one knows.

The coronavirus will continue to wreak havoc on daily life in the coming days, weeks, months — and most likely, years — even after it is contained.

To help stem the spread in Louisiana, which currently has the nation’s third-highest rate of cases per capita, Edwards issued a “stay at home” order for the entire state, beginning March 23 and ending April 12. The ban further limits the size of public gatherings to 10 people or less and closes many businesses considered “non-essential.”

Locally, Superintendent Joe Murphy has shut down all operations in the Livingston Parish Public Schools system, closing all school facilities and forbidding employees from reporting to work “unless notified by the superintendent.”

“We know this is an unprecedented response to a very serious threat, and we are cooperating fully with the governor’s stay-at-home order,” Murphy said.

For seniors, the coronavirus has thrown their long-awaited graduation ceremonies up in the air.

All Livingston Parish graduations were scheduled well after Edwards’ order ends April 13. But given the uncertainty surrounding the virus, along with its rapid growth in Louisiana, many fear that order will be extended another four weeks — and maybe longer than that.

Schools have told seniors they will do everything possible to see their soon-to-be graduates “walk across the stage,” but things could change if new factors or government mandates arise over the next month.

Otken said her dad assured her that if there wasn’t a graduation, they’d have “our own private ceremony” with family and friends. But it wouldn’t be the same, she said.

“Just being able to walk across that stage and finally enter adulthood, and not having the chance to do that, I don’t know how I’d handle it,” Otken said. “It’d be extremely devastating.”

In a statement to The News, Murphy expressed his sympathy for the Livingston Parish Class of 2020, which has dealt with two unthinkable events to bookend their high school journeys. He called this year’s senior class “the most resilient senior class I can imagine” before making a pledge “to every senior in the 19-20 LPPS graduating class.”

“Our schools and our principals will make every effort humanely possible to make your graduation a special event,” he said. “Today, we don’t know what that looks like or when it will occur, but rest assured we are LivingstonMADE and we will make a difference every day.”

For now, there’s nothing to do but wait.

Despite mostly being confined to their homes, many seniors are still able to keep in touch with one another via text messaging, FaceTime, and other social media platforms. But it’s not the same as spending time together “face to face,” Hoyt said, especially since their days together were already drawing to a close.

“I definitely miss all my friends,” she said.

For most, days are now spent doing school work via online platforms such as Google Classroom, working on projects around the house, taking walks around the neighborhood, and spending time with family.

Sibley said the “stay at home” order has given him a chance to catch up on his HGTV shows with his mother. He’s also taken a few rides around town with his father. Other times, they’ve just sat in the backyard and talked.

“Just some good family time,” he said.

But the fact that this senior class dealt with the flood entering high school and now the coronavirus leaving high school has not been lost on any of the seniors interviewed for this piece.

They just hope it means good things are in store for the future.

“It’s crazy to think high school could end this abruptly,” Felps said. “With the flood and now the pandemic, I don't know what’s up with our class. Maybe that means we’ll be set up for the future. Maybe our generation will be the ones to know how to deal with something more major in the coming years. Hopefully it was all for a reason.”

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