REEDSPORT — Seniors at Reedsport Community Charter School came together one last time Sunday for a parade and 22 individualized graduations for a total of 45 graduates.
In a normal year, the small class would gather, hear a speech or two and walk across the stage one at time to the cheers of their families and friends. This year, due to worries about contracting the novel coronavirus and state social distancing restrictions, RCCS did things a little differently.
While many school nationwide conducted their ceremonies digitally, RCCS chose to invite their students for a socially-distanced graduation. Instead of holding one big ceremony, the school held nearly two dozen smaller ones.
The ceremonies were staggered. Students were split into pairs and then invited to receive their diplomas one at a time.
When their turns came, one student walked down the auditorium steps at stage left and the other walked down the steps at stage right. Their names were called one at a time. As in a traditional ceremony, they shook the hands of those on the stage and were given their diplomas.
Unlike in a traditional ceremony, their families were standing at the back of the auditorium, looking down at rows of empty chairs. Also unlike a traditional ceremony, the men distributing diplomas, former teacher Keith Tymchuk, Superintendent John Zwemke and School Board Chair Eric Brandon used hand sanitizer after each handshake.
Each student was allowed to invite up to eight guests to attend the ceremony. After their students got their diplomas, families walked down the steps to take their photos and shuffled off to make way for the next group. Each individual graduation took about two minutes.
It took close to three hours to cycle through the RCCS Class of 2020.
This year’s commencement speaker, English teacher Joshua Peck, also served as cameraman for graduation. He started teaching at RCCS four years ago, when the graduating class were freshmen.
“I’m sad that, especially with this class, we didn’t get a last day of school. We had a last day of school but we didn’t know it was the last day of school,” he said, “We’re doing graduation but it still almost doesn’t feel real.”
Following the ceremony, the class of 2020 drove to the school for one last goodbye in the form of a parade. Many students decorated their cars for the short route. Several were installed in the back of pickup trucks, adorned with balloons and signs.
The parade of new graduates was led by an unmarked police car and trailed by no less than six fire vehicles, at least four of which were engines. They, together with the students, made a noisy processional and were met with cheers as they drove through town. As the group passed nearby Reedsport Church of God, Youth Pastor Lindsey Speer greeted them with candy.
“This is my fourth year back in town. I feel like I’m graduating with them. They’re very special to my heart and to this community,” Speer said.
This year was difficult for the graduates, who had to leave school unexpectedly in March as the pandemic caused shutdowns nationwide. They took up distance learning, but the rapid shift was difficult, particularly for those who played spring sports.
Principal Jerry Uhling, reflected on the smaller celebration, feeling some regret that the rest of the community could not join the graduates.
“It’s a rite of passage, right? It’s the closing of childhood and entering the adult world. And that should be met with a great celebration of community, because they are all a part of it. But they don’t get to be a part of it,” he said.
Uhling went on, “But they will carry on. This will be a little blip on the radar of their life, when they look back on it, but it’s probably bittersweet right now, for sure.”
Ashley Schuttpelz, Emily Brown and Kendallynn Bond are three graduating seniors and are best friends. The three echoed Uhling’s sentiments while looking back on the year and their graduations.
Schuttpelz said the expectation that they would have a big graduation ceremony like previous classes and learning they would instead have a smaller, distanced graduation was “heart-wrenching.”
Bond said, “It kind of just hit us hard. We thought it was just a little virus, but it turned out to be a really big thing.”
Brown said, “It’s nice seeing everyone, but it’s kind of sad, though. Because you don’t really know what’s going on in their lives anymore,” she said.
RCCS Class of 2020:
Elsa Frakes (valedictorian)
Makenzie Seeley (salutatorian)