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The Class Of 2020 Graduates During A Pandemic

Cole del Charco
Riverside High School Principal Tonya Williams Leathers poses with a graduate while teacher Jill Boliek hands her diplomas.

High school graduations across the state have taken a different form due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as drive-throughs and virtual celebrations became the norm. Instead of walking across a stage, shaking hands and throwing caps into the air, the class of 2020 had to find new ways to celebrate.

At Riverside High School in Durham — and at many other schools — that meant graduates drove to school in their caps and gowns, and stayed in their cars the whole time. 

They were greeted by school faculty and staff along the way, some ringing bells and others clapping. 

Credit Cole del Charco / WUNC
School leaders applauded and cheered as 'Pomp and Circumstance' played over a speaker and each graduate's name was read aloud.

After waiting in a line of cars, students received their diplomas from their masked and gloved principal through a car window. And got a photo of the moment.

"Pomp and Circumstance," blared in the background as each student's name was read aloud. Some families decorated their cars with balloons, signs and shoe polish on windows that read "Class of 2020."

In the lead-up to the end of students’ final high school semester, many attended virtual proms, athletic banquets and senior send-offs from their homes.

One North Carolina principal got national attention when he organized a procession to go to each graduate's house to deliver yard signs that read "Class of 2020." Tabari Wallace, the principal of West Craven High School in Vanceboro, wore his graduation regalia — and PPE — to visit students.

District leaders made difficult decisions to honor students, while also keeping them safe. Many of those choices hit close to home, like for Chip Sudderth, the director of communications for Durham Public Schools. 

"My son graduated from Charles E. Jordan High School, and his mother and I were disappointed that we didn't see him walk across the stage, but we understand the situation," Sudderth said. "That works out perfectly well for my son, who is about as excited about the idea of walking across a public stage as he would be about going to a dentist's chair."

Many schools across the state made videos for graduates and families to tune into at the same time. A lot of them included all the elements of a typical graduation, with commencement and valedictorian speeches, along with a slideshow listing each graduate.

A screenshot from Cary High School's virtual graduation video.

Cary High School Principal Nolan Bryant addressed students and parents in one of those videos.

"I know this is not how we envisioned this moment, but I can assure you that it is just as meaningful and important," Bryant said. "I hope that you are watching this tonight surrounded by the people who have supported and encouraged you along your journey."

Some districts made other choices. They included drive-in ceremonies held in large parking lots, to having students arrive at a stage in an empty room to receive their diploma at a specific time. 

Currituck County High School went even further. Last week, the school in the northeastern corner of the state held an in-person ceremony, where seniors were spaced out on a football field. Their families sat in the bleachers, where it was recommended they socially distance. No one appeared to be wearing a mask.

Credit Screenshot from video livestream
Students begin to file into seats before the ceremony at Currituck High School on June 11.

Those decisions went against state guidelines, and came after pressure from citizens, students and families. The Currituck County School Board voted unanimously to allow an in-person ceremony.

"We received so many emails, voicemails, text messages encouraging the traditional commencement ceremony that we decided to move forward with that," said Currituck County Board of Education Chair Karen Etheridge.

So last Thursday, 240 seniors spaced out on chairs outside — more than ten times the number allowed under Phase Two reopening restrictions. 

The event was also live-streamed so family members and friends, beyond the two relatives allowed to attend the graduation ceremony, could tune in.

Currituck High School class president Sydney McDonald addressed the crowd to begin the event.

Credit Screenshot from video livestream
Graduates crossed the stage in front of their peers and up to two family members at Currituck High School.

"Not only is it an honor that I am standing here in front of you this evening," McDonald said. "But it is a true miracle that took a long fraught journey to get to."

At the end of the ceremony, seniors threw their hats into the air together and their families applauded — a rare sight at high school graduations for the class of 2020. 

On the same day Currituck High School students and families gathered in-person in the hundreds, the state set yet another one-day record for the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalization, numbers that continue to rise.

Cole del Charco is an audio producer and writer based in Durham. He's made stories for public radio's All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Marketplace. Before joining Due South, he spent time as a freelance journalist, an education and daily news reporter for WUNC, and a podcast producer for WFAE in Charlotte.
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