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High schools prepare for virtual graduation
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Pitman and Turlock High Schools handed out caps, gowns and senior yard signs to students ahead of their virtual graduation (Photo contributed).

In just a few weeks’ time, countless high school seniors throughout Turlock would have normally been donning their caps and gowns in preparation to walk across the commencement stage and receive their diplomas. While they’ll still be able to do so, graduating in the midst of a pandemic will look a little different for students.

Turlock Unified School District announced this week that while its various commencement ceremonies will be taking place later this month, they will be virtual celebrations. Individual recordings of seniors walking across the stage will be compiled into a singular commencement video — a sort of “placeholder” ceremony until the district can hopefully host in-person commencements later this year.

“As the prospect of prohibitions against large gatherings in [California] seemed likely to continue into June and July, TUSD in the past few weeks began to explore a safe, yet meaningful way for seniors to be recognized in some form of commencement ceremony,” Chief Communication Coordinator Marie Russell wrote in this week’s TUSD Weekly Update.

According to Russell, TUSD’s high schools (Pitman High School, Turlock High School, Roselawn High School and eCademy Charter) and Turlock Adult School will be filming students and graduation speakers over the next few weeks to assemble into a video that will be shared online.

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Students were met with plenty of surprises at both Pitman and Turlock high campuses, including their mascots, support from teachers and enough school spirit to make the occasion memorable (Photo contributed).

When the graduates arrive at their respective campuses to film their big moment, they’ll be able to bring two members of their household with them to watch. All participants will wear face masks, which each senior can remove for a moment when they walk across the stage. Participants will be given a designated time to film their portion, and no more than 35 individuals will be allowed into the building at once.

Though it will be strange, the schools are holding out hope that the virtual ceremony won’t be students’ last memory of high school. While “Pomp and Circumstance” could still boom over the speakers at a later date, the postponed graduations are just another item on a long list of memories seniors are missing out on.

Turlock High School principal Gabe Ontiveros said the past couple of months have felt like a “different dimension,” from cancelling sporting events and musicals to filming prom videos and commencement ceremonies. He’s always made it a point to shake every graduate’s hand, he said — a meaningful gesture that won’t be possible this year.

“As principal, watching the COVID-19 pandemic unfold and take away so many significant and once-in-a-life-time events from seniors has been extremely difficult,” he said. “In my 10-plus years at THS, my biggest satisfaction after all the work is said and done is watching our seniors receive their diploma and declare they are ready to take on the future as adults.”

While Pitman High School principal Angela Freeman also wishes her students could have a “real” graduation at the end of the month, she hopes the virtual graduation will give them a unique experience to remember.

“My heart has been sad for what our students have missed out on. Not a day goes by that I wish I could have just fixed it all and made everything normal for them. However, I have been so moved by their kind emails, positive attitudes and lessons learned from COVID-19,” Freeman said. “Even though this is going to be a virtual ceremony that is being recorded and shown at a later time, the feeling of being dressed up in your graduation gown, walking across the stage and proving your success is an exciting moment.”

Both high schools jumped at the chance to do something extra special for seniors this week while handing out their caps and gowns, meeting students with plenty of fanfare as they drove through campus to pick up their graduation threads.

At PHS, students drove through a procession of teachers and staff (in masks, of course) who greeted students with a chorus of “congratulations.” Horns were honked, music was blared and one teacher even donned the Pride Mascot head to stir up school spirit.

“We wanted students to feel that their senior year, even though they have missed out on many of the ‘main’ events this spring, could be memorable; that getting their graduation cap and gowns and senior signs could be a positive turning point for them,” Freeman said. “Even though our students couldn’t get out of their cars to catch up and hang out with us on campus, they all had smiles on their faces as they drove through to get their cap, gown and senior sign; it was truly an emotional experience for us all.”

At both sites, students were handed yard signs recognizing their success, which were donated by the Turlock Teachers Association.

A similar scene unfolded at THS, where students also drove through an assembly line-like distribution center to receive their caps and gowns — and a tasty, Bulldog-shaped cookie. The street was decorated with blue and gold balloons, as well as the inflatable Bulldog used to rile up the Friday night football crowds. To top it all off, each senior’s name was announced over the loudspeaker as they drove through to cheers from their teachers.

“Watching the smiling faces, the happy and sad tears and the energetic howls of excitement and appreciation from our seniors was exceptionally touching to witness,” Ontiveros said. “The Class of 2020 demonstrated their courage and resiliency today throughout this entire process and we are very proud of how they have handled living in an unforeseen pandemic time period.”