Graduating from high school is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

But during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the class of 2020 at schools across the nation are having graduation experiences like no other senior class has ever had.

Ninety Grandview Heights High School seniors received their diplomas May 14 in a graduation ceremony modified to keep students and staff safe.

The students were able to walk across the stage in the high school auditorium and collect their sheepskins from high school principal Rob Brown.

Two sessions were held – one in the morning and one in the afternoon – with students assigned to arrive in groups of five at specific times.

Each group was escorted into the high school building – while maintaining social distance – and then each student was called to walk across the stage to receive his or her diploma.

Each student’s photo was taken and the stage walk recorded on video; the results will be compiled into a virtual graduation ceremony that will be posted at 4 p.m. Sunday, May 24, at vimeo.com/415699329.

Commencement originally was scheduled for that time and date.

“After going to school together for 13 years, and everything we’ve experienced, it was a little upsetting that we couldn’t share this experience together,” senior Luke Berlin said. “It was still nice to be able to have the chance to walk across the stage and turn my tassel right to left and throw my cap in the air. It made it seem real.”

When school buildings were closed in mid-March and students began taking their classes remotely, Berlin said, “my friends and I were still hoping this would be a temporary situation and we’d be able to gather together for graduation.”

By mid-April, it became clear that students would not be returning to the school building and that their graduation ceremony would be much different than expected, he said.

Berlin said he regretted not being able to participate in the annual Senior Walk, which always is held on seniors’ last day of classes.

The tradition includes students visiting Stevenson Elementary School and Edison Intermediate/Larson Middle School, then returning to the high school to walk the halls one final time before crossing Third Avenue for a celebration at Bobcat Field.

“I was most sad about not being able to go to the other schools and thank some of the teachers and say goodbye to them,” he said.

It was strange to step inside the high school after two months away, Berlin said.

Now, he is preparing to step away from Grandview Heights.

Berlin will attend Ohio State University, with plans to major in international business and Spanish.

“Students at bigger high schools, like Olentangy or Hilliard, will see a lot of people in the hallway at school that they’ll never get to know,” he said. “In Grandview, we all got to know each other, and that gives us a connection as a class we’ll always have.”

Senior class president Emma Hall and other class officers were in the first group of five students to arrive at the school to receive their diplomas.

“After talking to a lot of my friends about the day, we all experienced different emotions,” she said. “Some people were really excited and caught up in the moment, and others were sad because we were each going across the stage in an empty room with only the camera operator and a couple other people there.

“A lot of us were just grateful that we were able to have a ceremony of any kind,” Hall said. “Students at a lot of other schools aren’t having that chance.”

It’s been hard for seniors to be away from each other as their last year of high school wound down, she said.

“We’ve been doing a lot of group texts, trying to stay united,” Hall said.

When she walked into the high school, she said, she realized how much she missed being at school and seeing her classmates on a daily basis.

“I’m going to be going to Ohio State next year, and it’s going to be a big transition from attending such a small, close-knit school to such a large university,” Hall said.

She plans to study molecular genetics on a pre-med track.

Hall said she had been looking forward to serving again as a counselor at the district’s annual sixth-grade camp at Camp Ohio.

“I was able to do it last year, but it’s something that a lot of seniors really look forward to,” she said. “We went to the camp when we were younger, and it’s a great experience to return as counselors and work with the younger students. It brings back a lot of memories.

“Mr. Brown and our teachers have done a wonderful job trying to give us as many of our senior-year experiences as they can, but that’s one I really miss,” she said.

The May 14 event was surreal but still meaningful, Brown said.

“It’s unfortunate that our students weren’t able to share this moment together,” he said, “but graduation is still such an important milestone. We’ve tried to find ways to honor our students and the achievements they’ve made over the last 13 years.”

Teachers have visited seniors at their homes to deliver doughnuts and created video messages to the seniors, he said.

The ceremony itself was “almost like being in a movie,” Brown said. “There were a lot of stops and starts. It was almost like filming scenes in a movie. I think it will seem more like a real ceremony once it’s all put together (and released May 24).”

As senior class president, Hall introduced guest speaker Jeni Britton Bauer, founder of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams.

“It was a little weird speaking to the camera and not to a crowd of people,” Hall said. “They let us start over if we made a mistake. They just told me to look at the camera and think of it as the people I was addressing.”

The finished virtual ceremony that will be shown May 24 will include Bauer’s speech, as well as remarks from Brown.

“The main thing I wanted to talk about was the resiliency this year’s senior class has shown,” Brown said. “That’s something that will help them as they move forward into the next stage of their life.”

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