NORTH BEND — “A drive-through graduation” is how Principal Darrell Johnston described Friday’s non-traditional event, where 165 students drove up to get their diploma.
North Bend High School got creative for graduation, just like all other high schools across the nation as they grapple with the new coronavirus pandemic and safety restrictions.
“Prior years, we have traditions,” Johnston said. “This year, all of our old plans were gone so we had to find a way to maintain traditions while addressing the need for social distancing.”
When the North Bend School District made plans for graduation, Johnston said it was put together quickly when Coos County was still in Phase I of reopening. Because of this, he said the planned ceremony was more restrictive than if it had been planned for Phase II, which is what the county recently entered.
“We planned (the graduation) with the help of Coos Health and Wellness, Oregon Department of Education, and other schools,” he said. “We had to start from scratch.”
When asked what might live on as a new graduation tradition from the creatively organized 2020 graduation, Johnston pointed to the senior banners hanging on the fence near the main building.
“A lot of families came out to decorate those and liked that we have a ‘hall of glory’ for graduates,” he said.
The event began with graduates moving around the high school in one vehicle. Each vehicle held immediate family members only, some decorated and some with younger siblings hanging out of windows ready with silly string canisters.
The line of cars streamed from the high school’s lower parking lot and then up to the gym parking lot where elementary staff cheered them on. From there, the line of cars moved to the middle school parking lot where middle school staff met them with applause. Once the cars came around to the high school again, high school and district office staff congratulated them.
When they arrived to the front of the high school, seniors exited their cars to get their diploma from Johnston, smile for a photo, then get a senior gift bag before leaving.
At 9 p.m., many met back up at Pony Village Mall where a projection was set up for them to watch a slide show with commencement speeches from their cars.
Graduating during a pandemic
According to Johnston, 38 graduates are going on to study medicine.
“I don’t believe it’s been that high before,” he said of the higher-than-average number. Of course, he added that right as students were picking their majors that’s when the pandemic hit and school districts were forced to initiate distance learning. “I think that influenced people.”
Eric Gleason, district school board member and public information officer for Coos Health and Wellness, attended the event. Before the graduation began, he told The World that he was excited students had an opportunity to have some sort of ceremony.
“It’s unfortunate that the normal pomp and circumstance has been removed from this occasion,” he said. “At least the district put something together that keeps everyone safe and gives them something.”
District superintendent Kevin Bogatin called the event a “graduation to remember.”
“This is not the graduation I was expecting to be part of today,” he said, this being his first as superintendent for the district. “The beginning of the year started so optimistic and too quickly it turned to ‘how do we do distance learning.’ I think I’ve been inspired to see how the staff has risen to the challenge and how students are doing the best they can. It shows the best we can be in a most difficult situation.”
Graduating senior Rachelle Maxon said she was sad that graduation wasn’t the traditional ceremony she had hoped for, but said the experience taught her “humility and grace.”
One of the graduating valedictorians, Megan Farmer, said it was just hitting her there in the line of cars that it was the “last hurrah.”
When asked what she spoke of in her speech to the Class of 2020, Farmer said she thanked her family, as well as staff and friends.
“I mention how this year, even though it was short, was my best year of high school,” she said. “I made a lot of cool memories this year.”
She quoted, “All good things come to an end,” adding, “so all great things must come to an end too soon.”
Bogatin said he thinks the message of 2020 so far is of resiliency.
“You can map out your life, map out your year, and it might not happen,” he said. “From COVID-19 to racial issues in the country, there is a lot to learn from that, to adjust on the fly. We experience that throughout our lives and this is no different.”