The stage was erected on a mostly empty high school parking instead of inside of a crowded high school gymnasium, but Tomah High School seniors weren’t complaining. They walked across the stage Friday with their cap and gown and a heightened sense of gratitude.
“It’s sad that we have to do it this way, but it’s really special that they’re doing this for us,” said senior Ellie Eswein as she was holding back tears. “It’s the start of a new beginning.”
Eswein and other members of the Tomah High School class of 2020 were recorded for a virtual graduation that will be broadcast Saturday, May 23 at 10 a.m. − the date and time the traditional ceremony was scheduled − on the school district’s Youtube channel. It took over four hours to record students walking across the stage at intervals timed to maintain social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tomah High School principal Robert Joyce said the effort was worth it.
“I think it’s something that helped them bring closure to the school year,” Joyce said. “To give them that opportunity to walk across the stage is really important.”
School district superintendent Cindy Zahrte agreed.
“Seniors and their families have had May 23, 2020, on their calendars for over a year,” Zahrte said. “Graduation is a rite of passage in our society, so acknowledging that May 23 was the day that members of the Class of 2020 were to move on to the next phase of their lives is important.”
While a traditional graduation is scheduled for July 18 or Aug. 8, depending on the status of the pandemic, not every senior will be able to attend. One of them is Thai Davis, who begins his service in the U.S. Army July 1, when he heads to Fort Jackson, South Carolina. He said the virtual graduation means a lot to him.
“I appreciate the town coming together and giving us something to be a part of,” Davis said.
McKenzie Fitzpatrick, who will attend Edgewood College in Madison this fall for nursing, plans to attend the traditional ceremony.
“I’m looking forward to my parents being there,” she said.
It has been an unprecedented last two months for the Class of 2020. Governor Tony Evers ordered all public and private schools to close March 18, and students were suddenly transitioned into online classes while staying a home.
Eswein, who will attend UW-Eau Claire this fall and join the school’s dance team while pursuing and education degree, has two parents who teach in Tomah. She said that created an online bottleneck at home.
“We’ve fought over WiFi a whole bunch of times, but it’s nice to have them at home, and they are so supportive,” she said.
Fitzpatrick gave credit to teachers and staff for keeping the final two months of the school year together.
“It’s kind of hard to stay motivated at home,” Fitzpatrick said. “It was a different routine, but my teachers have been very supportive, and I’m thankful for that.”
Aimee Duff, who plans on taking online courses before heading to Florida to study marine biology, said the last two months have been a challenge.
“It was crazy. I missed my teachers and the people I socialized with,” she said. “It’s been hectic trying to get anything done before graduation, but I pulled through it.”
Tomah Journal editor Steve Rundio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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