COVID-19 and the Class of 2020: Prince George’s graduate remains unstoppable

The first in a series by WTOP’s Kate Ryan on local high school seniors and how they’re coping with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the end of their school careers.

Student: Vanessa Velas Romero, 18
School: High Point High School, Beltsville, Maryland
Future: University of Rochester, Rochester, New York
Intended major: Political science

The plan was to study hard, then go to prom and maybe beach week. And, of course, cap it all off with a graduation ceremony in front of friends and family.

But for Vanessa Velas Romero, 18, a senior at High Point High in Beltsville, Maryland, the coronavirus outbreak evaporated those dreams.

Velas said she knew it was likely that as school closures were extended and Maryland’s statewide stay-at-home order was imposed, that graduation was not going to go as planned.

Still, she said, she and her friends held out hope “that we were going to finish strong. And then, it was all just taken away.”

COVID-19 and the Class of 2020

Her habit of waiting until the last minute saved her some money: She had not yet picked out her prom dress when the school announced it was canceled.

Several friends were not so lucky: “They already bought their dresses, the heels and everything, and they’re really sad about it.” Velas said her friends might try to make the most of it, by dressing up and showing off their prom-ready outfits on social media.

For Vanessa Velas Romero, 18, the loss of a traditional graduation is a sudden change. But she is used to that. (Courtesy Vanessa Velas Romero)

Velas said it’s nice that Dr. Monica Goldson, the Prince George’s County schools CEO, came up with a plan to make graduation special: On Saturday, actress Taraji P. Henson, a graduate of Oxon Hill High School, will be the commencement speaker in a televised graduation celebration for the Class of 2020, with the theme “Unstoppable.”

Velas said she’ll also likely spend the day at a family celebration.

Still, she is excited for what lies ahead.

Velas is one of eight Prince George’s County students who won a full scholarship as part of the Posse Foundation’s program to guide students from high school through college.

She’ll attend the University of Rochester, where she plans to major in political science and minor in international business.

While many people are turned off by politics, Velas said she sees the political arena as a chance to make change for people who are without a voice.

She said that impulse comes in part from her experience as a new arrival to the United States.

WTOP's Kate Ryan talks with a senior at High Point High in Beltsville, Maryland, about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Velas came to the country from El Salvador at age 6, and remembers being frustrated by her initial inability to speak English.

“Back in El Salvador I was like, top student and I was used to everything coming easy,” she said, but in the U.S., she had to struggle to learn English before she could move at a pace she was used to in the classroom.

It was tough socially at first, too. “A lot of the students, they were kind of mean, and they were rude.” She didn’t like the feeling of being excluded.

For Velas, the coronavirus isn’t an abstraction.

A friend’s entire household contracted COVID-19 and while their high fevers and body aches eventually receded, the bills piled up for the family, she said.

“It was just a really hard two weeks for them.”

Velas said the switch to online classes in the last quarter of her senior year wasn’t much of a problem.

She gives off the air of someone who does not get rattled by shifting circumstances, but keeps her eye on her goals.

What does feel wrenching is being unable to say goodbye to the many teachers who helped her throughout her high school years.

Asked whether there’s one who was especially helpful, she struggles, instead ticking off a list of names: Ms. Welch, Ms. Boehm, Ms. Shelton, Mr. Lafon and the teacher everyone just calls “Mr. W,” Mr. Wisniewski: “If I ever needed help, or I felt I was struggling in something, those were the people I could go to” for a “Don’t give up” or “You got this!”

Reflecting on how growing up in a global pandemic has affected her, Velas said, “Something I would tell people in general is to enjoy the time that they do have and not to take things for granted.”

More Coronavirus News

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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