Class of 2020 celebrates amid virus
Whatever the “real world” is, Ouray School’s Class of 2020 started blazing its own way into it on Sunday during graduation.
The 13 members of the graduating class faced making their own way of celebrating graduation instead of being able to do things their predecessors just did because graduation is rife with tradition. But concerns over spreading COVID-19 took some of those traditions away.
There was no walking across the stage to accept a diploma, no throwing mortarboards into the air with a big whoop at the end of the celebration. There were no big group photos afterward, with arms around each other.
But there was a graduation. And though it was subdued, it still had certain elements allowed even in a time of pandemic, in a 30-minute ceremony much shorter than the one held in the school gym in previous years.
They gathered with family, in cordoned-off areas marked by orange surveyor’s tape. The little pods dotted the grass in a horseshoe pattern in front of the gazebo at the west side of Fellin Park.
They gave out flowers as tokens of appreciation to their family members, a tradition modified from past years where students walked across a crowded gym to deliver individual stems to family, friends, mentors and teachers. They delivered their flowers within their corralled areas instead.
Students made speeches wearing their masks. Lead Administrator Kenneth Nelson distributed diplomas – which previously sat untouched in a closed plastic container for 48 hours – and carefully applied hand sanitizer 13 times in between graduates.
They still played “Pomp and Circumstance,” but the graduates remained seated in their areas, where they had previously been escorted by Nelson with their families.
Keynote speaker Di Rushing, an English teacher at the school, jokingly congratulated the class on “pulling off the longest senior ditch day in history,” but also commended them for navigating a challenging end to their senior year of school. Since March, the students have been learning remotely, finishing up senior projects. Senior prom was canceled. The Ouray boys’ basketball team made it to the state playoffs, only to have their audience limited to a few people and later have the tournament canceled due to concerns over the virus.
“I could not be prouder of the way we’ve all handled this,” said Genevieve McArdle, salutatorian, in her address to classmates.
McArdle and Valedictorian Anna Biolchini both used parts of their speeches to reminisce about the memories they made with classmates, pre-virus good times and how far they’ve come as a class since they were freshmen.
“Quarantine may have taken away these last months, but it has not and it will not take away our memories from these last four years,” Biolchini said.
Initially, high schools across Colorado were faced with canceling or postponing graduations because of coronavirus. But Ouray’s class of 2020 was adamant – they wanted something as close to the real thing, as close to the original date planned as possible. And so, as Rushing said, they found a way when there wasn’t a way.
The state’s mass gathering limitations require groups of no more than 10 to assemble. The local health department approved a plan devised by Ouray Schol, its staff and graduates to allow a smaller celebration centered on each individual graduate. This meant instead of counting the big group (more than 100 people) toward the limit, each individual student’s graduation was considered its own event, just as a family might have its own picnic in the park, separate from other families having their own picnics.
They took photos after graduation, individually, in their caps and gowns, with Mt. Abram as the signature Ouray backdrop. They took their masks off and held up their diplomas before putting their face coverings back on again.
There were some hugs. There were some handshakes. And more hand sanitizer was used after those.
The senior awards night ended up being recorded and posted on social media, but it still happened. And there was even a fireworks show in honor of the graduates, courtesy of the Ouray Volunteer Fire Department, that night, as well as a parade through town.
At the end of the ceremony, Rushing encouraged graduates to remember they create their own reality, especially in this world turned upside-down by a pandemic. She encouraged them to forget about whatever standards the “real world” had and move forward with their own paths.
“Remember, there’s no such thing – just the one you create,” Rushing said.