When Ali Dorr posed for her senior pictures last summer, she didn’t imagine they’d ever end up on a billboard.
Of course, she didn’t imagine her final weeks at Grand Rapids High School like this, either. No spring sports games to attend, and no prom. Dorr, a competitive dancer for most of her life, is missing what would have been her last performances with her studio.
“It feels weird because it’s almost like there’s no end to this chapter in life,” she said.
After seeing Facebook posts in tribute to the class of 2020, Paul Shorma and his wife, Kayla, started reminiscing on their own high school days and thinking about the milestones this year’s seniors will miss because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We wanted to do something that they would have to celebrate a little bit,” said Shorma, who owns HighRoad Advertising, a Grand Rapids company with three digital billboards on Hwys. 2 and 169.
Business was down about 50% anyways, so Shorma had space to fill. He started running some public health service announcements. Then he put out a call on social media for photos of seniors.
Responses started flooding in faster than Shorma could edit them. Within a week, his billboards were flashing the faces of more than 150 almost-graduates — mostly from Grand Rapids and neighboring districts, though a friend of a friend’s kid from Andover sneaked in, as did a submission from International Falls.
Across Minnesota, schools are scrambling to find alternative ways to celebrate the roughly 75,000 seniors nearing the culmination of their K-12 educations amid a public health crisis. Many lit up their sports fields in early April to honor their athletes forgoing their last sports seasons. Others are delivering yard signs to seniors’ houses.
A woman in Tennessee started an “adopt-a-senior” Facebook group for people to make donations for graduation gifts. A city in Oklahoma posted banners with senior photos on the lampposts lining downtown.
“This is supposed to be the time of their lives,” said Kim Morse, whose son, Alex, is a senior at Grand Rapids. “The way that this community has embraced our seniors, I feel, has made it special for them.”
She and her husband drove to a nearby parking lot to watch Shorma’s billboards flick through the faces of the students they’ve seen transform from little kids to young adults. Just before Alex’s eight seconds of fame finally arrived after 45 minutes of waiting, her phone died — so they had to go back the next day to snap a shot.
“It’s kind of their story that they’re going to be able to tell someday,” Morse said. “I try and find the silver lining in all of it because time has been difficult for a lot of different generations.”
Tyler Johnson, a senior at Greenway High School in Coleraine, didn’t know his mom had submitted his photo until she texted him a picture of the billboard.
“It’s really nice to see all the people around who are supportive of the seniors,” he said.
On a March day at Greenway, Johnson didn’t know he was likely roaming his high school hallways for the final time as a student. Everyone thought classes would be back to normal in a few weeks.
“That’s probably the worst part of it,” Johnson said. He hasn’t even fully cleaned out his locker.
Seniors and their families are hopeful that the summer may bring some semblance of normal. Perhaps they’ll be able to have a small graduation party, or hang out with friends without worrying about social distance.
But there’s still some uncertainty surrounding campuses set to welcome these seniors in the fall. As experts and politicians debate when it’s safe to reopen the state, some students are worried their first semester of college courses could be forced online.
Not that the class of 2020 wouldn’t already be somewhat used to virtual learning — for more than a month now, they’ve been wrapping up calculus and chemistry and AP European history via the internet.
“It’s really different,” said Sara Larsen, a Grand Rapids senior who will head to Bemidji State University in the fall to major in elementary education. “I mean, I wake up and I do school at home. I’m spending more time with family, which is really nice, but I’m sad that I’m missing out on everything about the last few months of high school.”
Larsen’s been keeping in touch with her friends through FaceTime, texting and social media. She got a message last week showing her photo on a billboard — her mom had sent Shorma the picture as a surprise.
The soon-to-be Grand Rapids alum drove with her family to watch as the sign flip through ads and photos of her peers. She snagged Snapchats when friends’ faces popped up and, after some time, saw her own smile appear on the sign with congratulations offered in big bold letters.