Orange County High School is gearing up for a commencement like no other in the past 67 years it has held graduation ceremonies. Starting Monday, May 18, the school will host a series of nearly 400 socially distanced events at the Hornet Sports Center, with graduates assigned individual times to show up in cap and gown, hear their names called by an assistant principal, receive congratulations (but no handshake) from Principal Wendell Green and pick up their diplomas.
There will be no classmates and no crowd of spectators clapping. But each graduate’s family can cheer from the sidelines, at a safe distance, and there will be a place to take photos.
Green and other school administrators are making plans for a graduation video to be shared later on.
The principal, completing his first school year on the job, said he had consulted with graduating seniors and colleagues before the decision was made to model the OCHS graduation after Louisa County’s. Louisa held a socially distanced graduation on its high school football field in April. Green said he checked with Louisa school officials to find out “what worked, what didn’t work” for them during the unusual ceremony.
Sherrie Page, chair of the Orange County School Board, said there are other schools across Virginia holding similar commencements—a workaround intended to keep everybody safe from COVID-19 and adhere to Gov. Ralph Northam’s directives on crowd size and social distancing.
Page typically would be on stage during graduation. This year, she will attend her goddaughter’s graduation but will have no formal role during the drawn-out proceedings that last the entire week.
“It breaks my heart. The kids have worked so hard, and your senior year is supposed to be the grandest year. And this COVID-19 has just robbed them of that,” Page said. “Given the circumstances, we have to work within the guidelines that the state has put out.”
Still, she said the extreme adversity of the pandemic holds a lesson for the 2020 graduates. If she had the chance to address them all in person, she said she would tell them she is proud of each one of them:
“If anything, this has taught them to be stronger, more resilient, work harder and be more focused to reach out and grab their goal in life.”
“A cool story I can tell in the future”
What does it feel like to graduate during a pandemic and anticipate a ceremony that will be an unusual shadow of ceremonies in years past?
An informal poll of about 15 graduating seniors revealed that most see the event as a necessary compromise—far from what they expected but a lot better than nothing at all.
Laura Poirier of Rhoadesville acknowledged that the circumstances for this year’s graduation are far from ideal, but “I think we have to make the most of the situation. This will be a cool story I can tell in the future.”
And, in the judicious words of Miyanna Bell of Orange, “Although it is not the graduation I always envisioned, I am grateful for the safe and effective graduation that OCHS has planned for us graduates. I would have loved to be with all my peers this special day. However, with extenuating circumstances, we all know that was not possible.”
Fellow 2020 graduate Erin Slagle of Lake of the Woods looks at it this way: “I believe it is a good solution to the problem the world is facing right now. Of course I wish I could have a traditional graduation with my class.”
But with the pandemic making that impossible, she is taking a realistic view: “My class needs our diplomas so that we can continue on to our careers.”
Myles Johnson of Rhodesville said he wished the ceremony could have been postponed until the whole class could be together “for the best graduation possible.” His classmates Morgan Haney of Somerset, Eden Atwood of Orange, Rachel Valdes of Locust Grove, and Kourtney Gugel, Anna Ralls, Bryan Hargis and Bryan Dahl, all of Gordonsville, likewise expressed frustration with the plan for solo ceremonies.
It’s not that they don’t get it.
“I don’t really like the idea of it, but I understand that they are trying their best to accommodate the people who have been waiting forever to have this moment,” Dahl said.
Graduating senior Lexi Boggs of Orange said she wished the one-car-per-graduate rule could be eased for children of divorced parents. The limit “makes it really hard, like we have to choose one.”
Cake and ice cream at home
If this sample of students is representative of the whole class, many OCHS grads are planning on small family parties at home.
“If the coronavirus wasn't happening, then my family and I would go out to lunch before I go to my graduation and cook out later that day. Instead, I will celebrate at home by eating cake and ice cream,” said Slagle, who will enroll in the University of Mary Washington in the fall and major in elementary education.
Boggs, who will study nursing at Germanna Community College, said, “I plan to be at home with my family and make dinner, and when this is all over, finally celebrate with all of my family and friends.”
Everybody knows what “this” refers to, and her classmates also are looking ahead to better days.
“I do plan on celebrating my graduation with my immediate family on the day I graduate and then have a party later on when restrictions are lifted,” said Johnson, who’s headed to Longwood University with the goal of eventually becoming a civil rights lawyer.
Dahl said he’ll celebrate “at some point, once this whole quarantine ends.”
“We have always been a close class”
As the stunningly unusual spring semester draws to a close, OCHS graduates are looking back on their senior year with varying degrees of mixed emotions.
Travon Cervantes of Orange, who is going to the University of Virginia to major in biology and prepare for a career as a clinical pharmacist, took a generous view.
“My senior year has been extremely memorable,” he said. The soccer player said once he and his teammates realized the spring sports season probably would be canceled due to the pandemic, they made a point of playing team games and having fun anyway, especially during what turned out to be their last practice.
“While my subconscious mind was worried about the future of the team, I remained in high spirits during our final training session,” he said.
Riley Clatterbuck will attend Piedmont Virginia Community College with plans to transfer to the University of Virginia and become an RN. She confessed it was “heartbreaking” to forgo her final year on the OCHS softball team.
Overall, she said, “We have missed out on a lot: senior prom, senior skip day and all of our senior spring sports. I have had a hard time with this. However, no one is to blame, and we have made the best out of these circumstances. We have always been a close class and this has made us stronger!”