It wasn’t quite what the 210 members of Whitehall-Yearling High School’s class of 2020 expected when they began their senior year nine months ago.
But it was a special day nonetheless.
Amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, Whitehall-Yearling’s commencement ceremony still was mothers embracing daughters, grandparents looking on with pride as another generation received diplomas and fists raised in the air by the graduates who had achieved their goal.
It still was friends bumping elbows – the high-five equivalent in a world changed by COVID-19 – and masked toddlers too young to understand the significance of their older siblings’ rite of passage – and the precautions required for there to be any semblance of a commencement at all.
For seven hours May 30, Whitehall graduates, by appointment, were allowed to enter the school’s gymnasium with four family members to hear their name called and walk across the stage to accept a diploma from one of the members of the district’s school board.
It was a last-minute development; seniors initially were told they would receive their diplomas in front of the school, handed to them as they passed through in a vehicle.
Many central Ohio high schools distributed diplomas in such fashion.
But Whitehall-Yearling, which had planned an outdoor commencement at the school’s football stadium for the first time since 1980, worked to find a way for seniors to have something traditional to remember, said Ty Debevoise, director of communications and marketing for Whitehall City Schools.
District administrators submitted a proposal, approved by Franklin County Public Health, that allowed students to walk across the stage to receive their diplomas, Debevoise said.
It included temperature checks before graduates and family members were permitted to enter the auditorium. A professional photographer took formal shots of the graduates outdoors after they exited.
“Our graduation committee engaged in thoughtful and strategic planning to ensure we provided a graduation ceremony that was both safe and personal,” said Whitehall-Yearling interim principal Crystal Johnson.
“When I heard there wasn’t going to be a graduation, I was disappointed because I thought I would have to wait four more years, (but) at least there was a stage and I had four of my family members with me – that was better than no one,” said Tashy Cherotich.
The 18-year-old graduate plans to attend Columbus State Community College and then transfer to Ohio State University, where she wants to major in pediatric nursing.
Savannah Carter-Rice, 18, said she “was glad she got to walk on a stage” to graduate instead of driving through in a vehicle.
“I wish our whole family could have seen it, but I think (the district) found a happy medium, (and) we will do something bigger later,” said Savannah’s mother, Tracy Rice.
Amir Dallas, 18, said he was thankful the district “made it happen” and allowed his mother, grandmother and brother to see him graduate on stage.
Dallas will attend the University of Dayton on an academic scholarship to study business management.
His mom, Ricya Dallas, said he worked hard to make the honor roll.
“I’m glad Whitehall went above and beyond to make the most of what it could for the class of 2020,” she said.
Austin Cramblit, 17, agreed with his classmates that he was pleased to have the experience of walking across a stage to conclude his high school career.
While the nation’s pandemic did not delay Cramblit from turning his tassel, he said, he will need to wait to begin the next chapter of his life.
Cramblit said he will enlist in the U.S. Army when recruitment classes restart.
Whitehall Superintendent Brian Hamler said the class of 2020 demonstrated resilience during a year full of unexpected changes, beginning with the sudden departure of Whitehall-Yearling’s principal, Paul Smathers, in September, then the closure of school buildings in March and a canceled prom in May, among many other called-off events.
“This is a class filled with academic success stories, gifted athletes, talented musicians, natural leaders and a whole lot of resiliency,” Hamler said.
“This is not the spring they had envisioned or hoped for as they saw so many memorable moments canceled or changed, (but) it was the maturity and leadership of this class that led them through a difficult year, culminating in a high school diploma.”