Graduating class at Dallas ISD's Thomas Jefferson HS has had to overcome a tornado and COVID-19 pandemic

It has been a rough year for graduating seniors, but especially for the class at Thomas Jefferson High School in North Dallas.

In October, a tornado nearly leveled their school.

Then they started over somewhere new, only to be dealt another blow by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I questioned everything and I was like, ‘Why us, why me.’ I took it personal,” 17-year-old Marysol Ortega said.

Ortega describes the roller coaster of emotion that began October 20, when a tornado dropped down on Thomas Jefferson High School at the start of homecoming week.

Students quickly relocated nine miles away to the much smaller but empty Thomas Edison Middle Learning Center.

Just five months later, as students caught their breath, school was moved to online learning.

“And then the pandemic hits,” Ortega said. “I was angry, I was frustrated. And I didn’t want to adjust. I was just tired.”

But she and her classmates persevered, saying goodbye to the sports they love, their friends, and re-settling once again for online leaning.

“I think the word that comes to mind for a lot of schools, but especially for us, is resilience,” Thomas Jefferson HS Principal Sandi Massey said.

Massey said nearly 300 of the 338 seniors who started the year are graduating.

Another 30 will graduate with summer school.

She said it’s something to celebrate.

“It has been hard to see this senior class through, but our staff has been so amazing, calling, calling, calling. Harassing these kids in a great way just to get their work done,” Massey said.

It’s not just hard on students.

Sleepless nights for those who understand the importance of a diploma.

“Honestly, I don’t know when I’ve had a good night’s sleep. Because everything about being a principal is hard. And you worry about your kids all the time. It has been more challenging this year, and you do want to see every kid cross,” Massey said.

”We were supposed to have a sports ceremony as well, but that got canceled because of the pandemic,” Ortega said.

For Ortega, whose family is from Mexico and she will be the first to graduate from high school and go on to college, there’s no more time to sulk about all the missed milestones.

It’s about looking forward with a smile, knowing you can survive anything.

“I definitely feel proud and happy, I did it,” she said. “Class of 2020, we’ll always remember that.”