Tears and ‘air hugs’ mark a Coronavirus-era alternative graduation for SLHS

Friday, May 22, 2020
A senior breaks out in laughter when receiving her diploma - in the form of a diploma-shaped cookie. / Pilot photos by Dana Larsen

“It’ll be different, but it’ll be real,” Storm Lake Superintendent of Schools Stacey Cole assured a graduating senior donning cap and gown in a hallway of the mostly-darkened Storm Lake High School Monday.

Faced with the reality of a COVID-19 quarantine, the school staged an alternative graduation throughout the day. Students entered the school alone, one at a time, via the loading dock - even as Army tents outside the building were hosting pandemic testing.

Some were choked with emotion as they returned to their familiar halls for the last time - and the first time since schools were suddenly closed down in mid-March as sickness began to spread across the state.

They were outfitted in their green gowns to have a portrait taken by a teacher who is also a professional photographer. At another station, they were able to discuss future aspirations with a staff member, and at a third, receive some help for future education funding from Dollars for Scholars. Making their way down the hall, they had an opportunity to record a message to their classmates to be assembled into a video, which will be released on their original graduation date Sunday. Finally they added their signatures to a banner that will commemorate the occasion in the school, and were presented with gifts including cookies in the shape of a diploma. (Real diplomas would be distributed later.)

They left with a commemorative yard sign, a card with a class photo taken during homecoming, personal notes from some of their teachers, and a t-shirt noting the unusual year, reading, “I guess this is my graduation gown.”

“This was the loud area of the building. The staff members signed up for this part are very good at yelling and screaming and cheering,” Supt. Cole said. “We think we helped them feel pretty special in a time when they felt pretty unspecial.”

One person joking described the process as “a gauntlet.”

“There is a real emotional connection that the students have come to realize when they couldn’t finish their senior year at school. They go through slowly… they don’t want this to be over,” one of the staff members reflected.

There was none of the usual whooping and group embraces that typically mark graduation day.

“I know they are proud of their achievements, but they are pretty somber,” a teacher noted.

Others felt the individual nature of the graduation day will make it even more memorable than the usual stroll across a stage. “This is a graduation like no one has ever seen before. It’s a day they will tell their grandchildren about,” one said, after offering an “air hug” to a sniffling student, from the prescribed six-foot distance.

Teachers and staff did all they could to make the day a positive memory. Through a 10-hour plus day, they were upbeat, encouraging each of the 160 students as they departed in their graduation finery, making up in volume and energy what was lacking in crowd.

The halls students walked were decorated for the occasion and studded with balloons.

One of the teachers hummed “Pomp and Circumstance” as seniors paraded by.

Senior Anthony Varas wanted his graduation picture taken in his COVID-19 mask. “It was part of my graduation. I want to remember,” he said.

Others took the unusual circumstances in stride. “Life is hard sometimes, but you get through it,” one said.

“We didn’t plan for it to end this way,” several students noted, clearly feeling the impact of national uncertainty as they look ahead to college or careers.

One, in the filmed message, said simply, “I love you, Mama,” lamenting the reality that parents were unable to see their children graduate.

As they left the parking lot the students passed a line of signs that staff had made, stuck in the ground beside the school building.

One read, “Graduates, COVID-19 can be stopped. Don’t be like the virus. Be unstoppable!”

All but three of the seniors attended the alternative event in a turnout Cole termed “incredible,” and many of the families have since expressed their appreciation. “Kids stood with their gowns on and cried. It was so good to see the kids,” Supt. Cole said.

Senior class members surveyed still had a strong desire for a traditional graduation ceremony together. If health conditions allow, the district hopes to plan such an event during the summer.

Next week school officials will begin meeting with the graduates over Zoom to see what can be planned.

“A lot of our kids are first time graduates in their families. It’s important to honor that,” Supt. Cole said. “We’re going to do everything we can.”

Last Friday, the district took its traditional Senior Awards Program on the road, celebrating with high-achieving students - from a distance.

Teachers, administrators and staff visited the students’ homes to share the news about honors they had earned.

Eight seniors received the prestigious Presidential Education Outstanding Academic Excellence Award: Raul Arevalo-Ramirez, Cobe Berglund, Jaley Butler, Skylar Cole, Tyler Dvergsten, Fletcher Kucera, Daniel Mendoza and Jessica Slight.

Students were recognized for their community service, the Biliteracy Seal, scholarships and various other awards and honors.

“We knew how important it was to celebrate these exceptional students in a meaningful way,” Supt. Cole said. “Several of our staff members even said it was one of the best days they have ever had on the job.”

The home visits were so popular that the district may consider continuing to do them in future years.

The district recorded the presentations. The video can be found on the district or the Pilot-Tribune Facebook pages. For a full list of the Class of 2020 scholarships and awards, visit www.bit.ly/SLSeniorAwardsProgram.

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