Canby High Class of 2020 Graduates Amid Pandemic

School administrators, teachers and parents — who have lived through it themselves — all like to tell students that their high school graduation is one of the biggest transitions they will encounter in life.

It’s hard to argue that this has never been more true than for the class of 2020, as they enter into a next phase of life that is filled with way more than the usual uncertainties.

Whether they are going on to college (which is likely to be largely, if not entirely, virtual), the job market (where unemployment is at record levels), the military or other opportunities — very little will fall in line with the expectations they had even a few months ago.

It also means that this year’s seniors missed out on what is perhaps the most important and certainly the most rewarding periods of their high school careers.

“In the traditional high school experience, that final term is where you solidify your relationships, you celebrate the next steps,” Principal Greg Dinse said in a recent interview on the Canby Now Podcast. “You kind of put the exclamation point on your childhood educational career and make the big transition into adulthood.”

Making that transition — without the traditional graduation ceremony — is like “climbing a mountain, and you’re just about there at the summit, and you get pulled off,” he said.

With most of the strictest Covid-19 restrictions still in place — including a ban on gatherings larger than 25 people — Canby High pivoted to a unique, “virtual graduation experience,” one that sought to preserve most of the elements the senior class treasured most.

Ajalon Bell and Natalie Cobb pose in cap and gown in front of the new “senior rock” at Canby High. Photo courtesy Secelia Bell.

Instead of gathering en masse, the class was invited to come in small groups of friends and family over the span of a week. They walked across the stage of the Canby Fine Arts Center, in an auditorium whose seats were lined with paper cutouts of their smiling teachers and other high school staff.

They posed for photos with a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Principal Dinse, giving two thumbs-up, recorded senior messages to the teachers who impacted them most and left a blue or gold handprint on the newly christened Class of 2020 hallway. Even the beach balls made an appearance.

The experience of each senior and family was filmed and cut together into a cohesive ceremony, which was live-streamed on YouTube Friday at 6 p.m. — the time the traditional ceremony would have kicked off.

While joking that doing graduation this way at least guaranteed they wouldn’t have to worry about rain — Dinse said there actually were some advantages, including that the families got to be much more involved in the various rites of passage than they usually would be, and that teachers and administrators got to spend more time with students as well.

“You know, graduation is a big ceremony, and in some ways, it’s an impersonal ceremony,” he said. “The kids get ready, they go up, they go through the ceremony and then reunite with their parents at the end. The parents are really spectators. But the way we ended up doing it, it really was an opportunity for parents to participate with their kids, as they walked through the building and did the different stations.”

We asked parents and seniors what they thought of the graduation experience a couple of weeks ago, and the response was overwhelmingly positive, including more than one who suggested they keep the format this way — even after the pandemic has passed.

“The CHS team totally made a positive out of a pretty sad situation,” said parent Kristin Cornish Odell. “Having staff cheering the seniors on at every moment, the senior could feel the love. It’s really tough with all they missed, but this definitely made my girl smile. Talk about making some sweet lemonade out of a giant delivery of lemons!”

Graduation photos by Tyler Francke:

CHS Class of 2020 – The Graduation Experience:

Hear more from Canby High School Principal Greg Dinse in Episode 175 of the Canby Now Podcast, “Pod and Circumstance”:

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