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Louisa County rethinks graduation ceremony to honor Class of 2020

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ERIN EDGERTON/THE DAILY PROGRESS

Ashley Burley walks across the stage during an almost empty football stadium Wednesday at Louisa County High School. The Lions hosted a social distant graduation to record the final practices and the video will be aired on the original date of graduation. No one filled the stands and there was a single family on the field at a time. Find more photos at DailyProgress.com.

MINERAL — When schools closed in March, Dylan Brown wasn’t worried about graduation.

The high school senior was pretty sure Louisa County High School would make something happen.

“We’re so blessed,” said Justin Brown, his dad. “We knew Louisa was going to come through for us.”

On Wednesday, Dylan Brown walked into the football stadium, known as “The Jungle,” with his parents. He followed white painted paw prints to a stage on the field, where Principal Lee Downey was waiting. After picking up his diploma from a table manned by a staff member in gloves, Brown smiled for a plethora of photos.

“I love it,” he said after the ceremony. “I had the opportunity to graduate.”

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photos by ERIN EDGERTON/THE DAILY PROGRESS

Dylan Brown stands with family for a graduation portrait Wednesday at Louisa County High School. The Lions hosted a social distant graduation to record the final practices and the video will be aired on the original date of graduation. No one filled the stands and there was a single family on the field at a time. BELOW: Katheryn Byers stands with her decorated cap before walking in her graduation ceremony Wednesday.

As area school systems work to figure out a way to recognize graduates, the Louisa County school division kicked off its plan this week with individual graduation ceremonies.

There were cheers — but no hugs or handshakes — for the Class of 2020 Wednesday, as Louisa County High School adapted traditions and graduation staples — minus “Pomp and Circumstance” — to make the moment special.

“It’s not the traditional graduation, but we wanted to make sure they get honored,” said Doug Straley, superintendent of Louisa County Public Schools.

Straley sported a bow tie bearing the high school’s colors (green and gold) and logo (a roaring lion) for the occasion. He’s a graduate of the high school himself, and his son is in the senior class.

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ERIN EDGERTON/THE DAILY PROGRESS Katheryn Byers stands with her decorated cap before walking in her graduation ceremony Wednesday at Louisa County High School. The Lions hosted a social distant graduation to record the final practices and the video will be aired on the original date of graduation. No one filled the stands and there was a single family on the field at a time.

When Gov. Ralph Northam ordered schools closed for the rest of the academic year and banned large gatherings, many wondered what that meant for the annual rite of passage for high school seniors.

Straley said the division didn’t want to wait to hold a ceremony because they don’t know what the future holds and when limitations will be lifted.

“We felt like we needed to do something special,” he said. “Graduation is the culmination of 13 years of hard work. If we wait, we might not be able to do anything.”

Officials have spent the last month planning for a retooled graduation. Prepping the field took about a week, Straley said.

The school’s 360 seniors were given a time slot to arrive at the football stadium in green caps and gowns. Over the course of five days, each senior will have a chance to wear their honor cords, hear their name announced on the PA system, accept their diploma and pose for a variety of photos, including with the high school’s famous fire-breathing lion.

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ERIN EDGERTON/THE DAILY PROGRESS Nasiaah Ha’son Amore Brooks stands for a portrait with his mom Wednesday at Louisa County High School. The Lions hosted a social distant graduation to record the final practices and the video will be aired on the original date of graduation. No one filled the stands and there was a single family on the field at a time.

Only parents were allowed on the field for the ceremony to limit the number of people gathered, though some friends and family sat on the hill next to the stadium to cheer on graduates.

The scoreboard clock was set to 20:20, and school maintenance crews painted ‘20’ on the field in five places for another photo opportunity. Photographers in the community were recruited to help capture the experience.

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ERIN EDGERTON/THE DAILY PROGRESS People cheer on graduates from outside the stadium Wednesday at Louisa County High School. The Lions hosted a social distant graduation to record the final practices and the video will be aired on the original date of graduation. No one filled the stands and there was a single family on the field at a time.

Dylan’s mom, Vanessa Brown, said it was neat to have a moment to themselves on the field where he played so many games. He’s planning to play football at Shenandoah University in the fall.

“It was a unique experience,” she said. “It gave us a more intimate graduation.”

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ERIN EDGERTON/THE DAILY PROGRESS Toulson Buddendeck fixes her cap before walking across the football field Wednesday at Louisa County High School. The Lions hosted a social distant graduation to record the final practices and the video will be aired on the original date of graduation. No one filled the stands and there was a single family on the field at a time.

Working their way through an assembly line of stations, seniors submitted a memento to the class time capsule and picked up a class T-shirt, a yard sign and a program for what would’ve been the school’s 80th commencement ceremony.

Additionally, all seniors who participate will receive a silver dollar — a long-running Louisa County tradition that represents the first dollar earned as a graduate.

“We tried to keep as many traditions as we could,” Straley said.

Straley said the division is planning to release a graduation video featuring class speeches on May 16, when the formal ceremony was supposed to take place. Diplomas will be certified that day.

He hopes that at some point, the Class of 2020 will be able to gather for a field day and watch the video together.

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ERIN EDGERTON/THE DAILY PROGRESS Demetrius Brown holds his diploma Wednesday at Louisa County High School. The Lions hosted a social distant graduation to record the final practices and the video will be aired on the original date of graduation. No one filled the stands and there was a single family on the field at a time.

Amy Wilson, a biology and special education teacher at Louisa County High School, was in charge of handing out programs for the virtual ceremony.

“It’s fabulous,” she said of the day’s events. “It’s definitely one of a kind. I feel like students are enjoying it.”

Wilson added that the nature of the ceremony made it more individualized for students, compared to a mass ceremony.

“This and the video is a memory they’ll always have,” she said.

Sen. Tim Kaine announced a video contest Wednesday for Virginia graduating seniors. He’s asking students to submit videos of the speech, preferably 10 minutes or less, that they would like to give at graduation this year. He’ll then select speeches to feature on social media and on his website in May and June.

“One of the many groups of Virginians I’ve been thinking about during this challenging time is the graduates of the Class of 2020, many of whom won’t have the graduation experience they’ve been planning for a long time,” Kaine said in a news release. “I feel a sense of loss about that, so I want to do something fun for them and give all high school seniors the chance to be a graduation speaker.”

Those interested in participating should email submissions to gradspeech@kaine.senate.gov by May 15.

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