For their 2020 graduation ceremony this year, Kenai Central High School managed to turn lemons into lemonade. A traditional ceremony could not be held due to the social distancing mandates that had been issued by the state in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, so instead the graduating class of KCHS was given a parade through town in their honor on Wednesday night.
The parade started at Mountainview Elementary, where all 80 graduates lined up in their cars with their family members. The cars were decked out in bright red balloons, signs and streamers, and many of the graduates sat in their truck beds or stood up through their sun roofs as they passed through a few neighborhoods and waved to Kenai residents who came outside to cheer them on.
Once the parade had arrived at the high school, the students pulled up to the entrance of the school, grabbed their diploma, signed their name on their class banner, and took two photos: one with their mask on, one without.
After receiving their diplomas, the graduates parked in an assigned spot in the main parking lot, spaced safely apart from one another.
Once everyone was in their spot, principal Briana Randle announced that they were all officially graduated, and the seniors turned their tassels while standing outside their cars.
Senior Dustin Bishop told the Clarion that the parade, while not the same as a typical graduation ceremony, was a great alternative to a traditional ceremony.
“Going around the town, seeing how big the community response actually is, how much work people put into this, you know, that means a lot,” Bishop said. “It shows that they actually do care.”
Bishop’s classmate Onaca Daniels was convinced that graduation parades would be the way of the future — or at least, they should be.
“It’s the start of something new, just without the social mandates in the future,” Daniels said while waiting for her turn to grab her diploma. “It’s a lot more fun than sitting in an auditorium for two hours.”
The unconventional graduation wasn’t the only change that these seniors had to adjust to in the last few months. In-person classes across the state were canceled in March, and the students’ last day of high school ended up being the Friday before their spring break.
Senior Trent Duncan didn’t mince words when asked what it was like spending his last high school days in front of a computer screen instead of in the classroom.
“Oh it sucked,” Duncan said. “It wasn’t fun. But I’m an outdoors kind of person so I just worked on school work for a little bit and then just went outside.”
On the bright side, Duncan was able to do more fishing than he probably would have in a normal semester.
Duncan will be working as a fishing guide this summer, an industry that has been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Guides like Duncan see much of their business from out-of-state tourists, but current health mandates in Alaska require all out-of-state visitors to self quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in the state. Duncan said that, at least with the company he works for, all of their clients were willing to adjust their vacation plans to account for their time in quarantine, so he will likely be booked up all summer.
Some spent their extra time outdoors like Duncan, others worked on art and some took the opportunity to get a job and make some money before starting the next chapter of their lives.
Peyton Hunt-Williams said that the stress for him came not from the online academic work, but from not being able to see his friends and teachers he had come to know since transferring from Anchorage. He said that he really missed not being able to go to prom this year, as did so many other seniors, but he also missed the experience of finals week.
“It’s crazy to say that I enjoy finals week,” Hunt-Williams said. “But it’s the last time you get to see all your teachers, and you get spend hours with those teachers for those last few days.”
Hunt-Williams gave a special shoutout to his teachers Emily Sims, Amanda Trower and Meredith McCullough for the impact they had on him throughout his high school career.
Luckily, Hunt-Williams was able to keep himself busy with art projects. He made handmade gifts for his friends and teachers during his time in quarantine, including a crocheted jellyfish for his principal that he gave to her before the parade started. Randle noted that it was teal, her favorite color, which was a lucky guess on the part of Hunt-Williams.
Most of the emergency remote learning throughout the district was done through online classes and Zoom conferences, but some students, like Austin Hobaugh, don’t have the resources to do that. Hobaugh said that he doesn’t have internet access at his house, so he finished up his classes through the mail, getting a packet of assignments that he completed and sent back to the school. Hobaugh said that this method was beneficial for him, because it allowed him to set his own schedule, finish the assignments quickly and start working eight hour days at his job.
“Me and computers don’t mix anyway,” Hobaugh joked on Wednesday before the parade had started.
For Meghan Roney, not being able to perform the final choir concert of the year was a big letdown, especially because their choir director Simon Nissen is retiring.
“It was his last year and so we were going to do this big thing for the pops concert,” Roney said. “And then it wasn’t even a thing.”
The pops concert, Roney said, is a performance that’s much less formal — and much more fun — than traditional choir concerts and involves some choreography.
Roney said that prior to this past semester, she was considering doing her first semester of college online.
After experiencing a little of what that would be like, however, she’s leaning toward attending in person. Adjusting to the online classes wasn’t easy, Roney said, and not having to physically go to class only amplified the senioritis.
Roney’s mom, Deanna Holley, noted that once news outlets had reported that grades for the last semester wouldn’t be negatively impacted no matter what, it was a little difficult for parents to keep their kids motivated to do the work.
“She didn’t finish her senior civics project,” Holley said.
“I didn’t,” Roney admitted.
Roney said she’ll be taking a gap year to solidify her post-high school plans, but she wants to either become a radiology technician or go to veterinary school.
When asked what advice the seniors had for next year’s graduating class, their words of wisdom were to have fun, work hard, and not take anything for granted.
“I would just say, you know, enjoy it,” Alissa Law said during the parade. “You never know what you have till it’s gone, sadly, so just appreciate all the little things that people do for you, and your teachers and all your mentors around you. Always make sure to say thank you, and stay positive. Stay positive.”