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'Lives over memories': Schools find ways to celebrate Class of 2020 from a distance

'Lives over memories': Schools find ways to celebrate Class of 2020 from a distance

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The empty stadiums glowed like beacons in the darkness.

Outside Foundation Field, Papillion-La Vista seniors sat on car hoods to look at the lights. Parents took photos with their phones.

The lights were on at Omaha South’s stadium, too.

A line of cars spontaneously formed and circled the block around the empty Collin Field. Drivers honked horns. One person spun a noisemaker out the car window.

Amanda Gonzalez, whose son Andres Mancinas is a senior at South, took in the scene from the passenger seat of a car.

“It’s just sad that they didn’t have a chance to say goodbye, to have closure,” Gonzalez said.

s It’s one of the many socially distanced celebrations school districts are cooking up to celebrate seniors during the coronavirus pandemic.

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The stadium and scoreboard are lit up as part of the “Be the Light” campaign at Papillion-La Vista South High School on Wednesday.

They turned the lights on in Grand Island, Nebraska’s biggest coronavirus hot spot.

For 20 minutes, a convoy of people cruised bumper to bumper around the school campus, honking their horns.

Jack Sheard, a spokesman for the Grand Island Public Schools, said he talked to one girl who was hanging out the window of her car.

“She was so thankful,” Sheard said. “Those little things our students are grasping onto because it’s something.”

The district is sending a box home to seniors that will include a cap and gown, a diploma and a few surprises, Sheard said. The district’s 580 seniors will have a virtual graduation.

District officials are looking for creative ways to celebrate the seniors, but ideas that involve any kind of physical contact are out.

“We are such a hot spot right now in Grand Island, we don’t want to encourage them to do anything that makes them leave the house,” Sheard said.

For now, the district is “putting lives over memories,” he said.

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Lights illuminate the stadium at Omaha South High School. Schools are turning on the lights at night to honor their senior classes.

In Red Cloud, the nine seniors stayed 6 feet apart while walking to “Pomp and Circumstance.”

The graduation stage was two flatbed trailers. Parents watched from their cars, honking wildly when their student’s name was called.

With the principal, the total number of people on the graduation stage was 10.

“It was almost like it was meant to be,” said Red Cloud Community Schools Superintendent Brian Hof.

Hof had gotten the smaller-than-usual graduating class together on a video call and laid it all out.

Did they want a virtual graduation? A ceremony in August? Or a socially distanced graduation now?

Graduation was originally planned for early May, but Hof worried that a shelter-in-place order would be implemented and prevent even a small ceremony.

The seniors agreed. They wanted a ceremony.

So Hof started making calls to education, city and health officials and the Webster County Sheriff’s Office to get everyone’s blessing.

The April 11 ceremony went off without a hitch, Hof said.

It has been viewed more than 34,000 times on Facebook. Hof has fielded more than a dozen calls from other districts asking how Red Cloud pulled it off.

In the Omaha area, school districts have made plans for virtual graduations in May and booked arenas for later in the summer in the hopes that students will get a chance to walk across the stage.

Signs honoring graduates have started popping up in the yards of Millard Public Schools and Westside Community Schools families.

Millard board member Mike Kennedy spearheaded the effort to put the signs in his district.

Kennedy’s son, Ian, is a senior at Millard North High.

Kennedy said a lot of parents and students are disappointed that COVID-19 has canceled traditional graduation events.

He said he approached Superintendent Jim Sutfin with the sign idea and kicked off the effort with a donation.

The Millard Public Schools Foundation and others pitched in as well.

Stacy Jolley, another school board member whose son Evan is a senior, also chipped in on the sign effort.

“Our seniors have lost out on so many experiences that absolutely anything we can do to put some tallies in the positive column is worth doing,” she said.

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Ella Pelletier and Matt Jones, both Papillion-La Vista South seniors, watch as the school’s stadium is lit up as part of the “Be the Light” campaign on Wednesday. Schools across Nebraska have turned on their stadium lights at 20:20 to honor the class of 2020 that will not be able to have prom or graduations. 

The signs read, “Millard Public Schools” and “Proud of Our 2020 Graduates.”

The family of every senior in the district will get a sign.

Graduation is the culmination of a lifetime of hard work, and that commitment should be recognized, Kennedy said.

“I couldn’t think of a better way to acknowledge them publicly,” he said. “I can’t wait to see these signs proudly displayed throughout Millard.”

Tuesday, Westside High School seniors were able to stop by the school and pick up a free red-and-white yard sign. The district set up tables, spread apart.

“Westside Class of 2020,” the signs say. “The best is yet to come.”