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HCHS graduation on wheels, again

South Boston News
The line of vehicles that headed to the outdoor stage in front of HCHS, where outgoing members of the Class of 2020 received their diplomas in May of last year. / April 29, 2021

After holding a drive-thru graduation for departing seniors last year, Halifax County High School will stick to the same outdoor format in 2021.

HCHS administrators announced Wednesday that commencement for the graduating Class of 2021 will take place Saturday, June 19 starting at 9 a.m. The drive-through format will be patterned after the 2020 commencement service, which was moved from the indoor gym to the front traffic circle in front of the HCHS building.

Despite criticism that the drive-through format would shortchange that year’s graduating class, the 2020 commencement — an adaptation to the COVID-19 pandemic — proved to be popular among many graduates and their families.

After the public health emergency forced the cancellation of the 2020 school year in March, the vehicle parade out front of HCHS and the socially distanced line of graduates walking up to a makeshift stage to accept their diplomas provided a last hurrah — and last meeting together — for the Class of 2020.

“Last year was so organic, I think we captured lightning in a bottle,” said HCHS Vice Principal Ryan Russell. “Having the chance for more family to share that special moment with their graduate was the best part.”

While the State of Virginia has loosened restrictions on the number of people who can congregate together at events — the current limit for outdoor crowds, raised by Gov. Ralph Northam on Thursday, is 50 percent of venue capacity, with no specific cap on the number of attendees — the idea of holding a single graduation event, even outdoors, would not be feasible, administrators said Wednesday.

“We have 351 eligible graduates. To follow the safety guidelines and place the graduates six feet apart, we would have to hold multiple ceremonies,” said HCHS Principal Michael Lewis.

Among the drawbacks with that, Lewis said, is the ceremony would have to be repeated several times, speeches would have to be prerecorded and any sense of class camaraderie and unity among graduates would suffer.

“We debated [using] the gym and the football field, but this was the only possible way to celebrate together as a whole class,” Lewis added.

By holding a vehicle parade, seniors can have more than just two adults per person there to witness graduation. In 2020, many graduates brought along parents, grandparents, siblings and others riding in pickup beds and trailers. For many, the spectacle conjured up the annual red carpet pageantry of the junior-senior prom, which was called off last year and again this year due to the pandemic.

Last year, teachers and staff lined the roadway between the middle school and high school under pop-up tents, waving and shouting out encouragement to the graduates as they rode up to HCHS from the drive that connects the middle school and high school. Adding to the festive atmosphere, teachers made posters, created a loud din with noise makers and, in the case of French teacher Melissa Peacock, yelled out praise for the graduates in the foreign tongue.

On the morning of the June 19 ceremony, graduates will be grouped and lined up alphabetically in the HCMS parking lot. The ceremony will be broadcast live — on the radio at 95.3 WHLF, and livestreamed on YouTube and Facebook Live. Last year, the ceremony lasted about 90 minutes.

“Having the celebrations shared on radio and social media allows the entire community to join the event,” said Lewis.

All seniors and staff were notified of the graduation arrangements by email Wednesday. This is a rain or shine event, unless a significant dangerous weather pattern develops.

“We hope Mother Nature will be kind to us,” said Lewis.

Graduates will receive more detailed information on June 14, the week of graduation. Cap and gown vendor Jostens will be at the HCHS campus Friday, May 7 from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. in the drive-up circle so seniors can pick up their graduation gowns and mortarboards.

Additionally, HCHS will hold its Senior Awards program in person, using multiple sessions and adhering to all required safety protocols, to celebrate the achievements of the Class of 2021. Senior awards will be presented on June 9. The top ten seniors of the Class of 2021 will be announced the week of graduation.

More information on graduation and upcoming events will be provided in coming weeks.

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