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Defiance, Creativity And Controversy Mark Class Of 2020 Grad Season

If you’d told Jonathan Bryant a few months ago that Lincoln Charter School would pay $10,000 for a graduation venue and ask families to drive an hour to get there, he’d have thought you were crazy. But the coronavirus has uprooted traditions that go so deep in our culture that we barely think about them until they’re banned.

Now the longest, strangest and most controversial graduation season in memory is underway.

Instead of watching graduates walk across the stage in a school gymnasium Friday night, Lincoln Charter’s chief administrator was at Charlotte Motor Speedway with 142 graduates and hundreds of guests. Teachers cheered as graduates rode up the track in cars.

A Lincoln Charter School graduate walks along the track at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Friday.

Bryant said Lincoln Charter considered a video ceremony.

"We did get some direct, constructive criticism and feedback that that was just not something that a lot of our folks were excited about," he said with a chuckle.

The in-person speedway alternative was festive and dramatic. There were even fireworks.

Senior Makayla Dowdy says it was better than a traditional ceremony.

"I think it’s much cooler, 'cause a lot of people can’t say they’ve graduated out at Charlotte Motor Speedway, so it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing to do," Dowdy said.

Lincoln Charter seniors cluster in the Charlotte Motor Speedway infield before their drive-up commencement.

But it also involved clusters of teens hanging out in the infield without masks or distancing.

And that’s the thing: None of the available options – videos, small-group gatherings, drive-through celebrations or delayed ceremonies – can make everyone happy and keep everyone safe.

In Person Is Popular

In general, grads and families across the region have said they want something in person. Gaston County Schools decidedon an in-person, safely spaced walk across the stage that’s expected to take two weeks for its largest high school, with each grad showing up at a scheduled time.

Christopher Hartman of Lake Norman High speaks on one of Iredell-Statesville Schools' video commencements.

Iredell-Statesville Schools posted a video ceremony for each high school, releasing them on YouTube at the original graduation time. Instead of students marching across a stage as "Pomp and Circumstance" played, pictures flashed on a screen. The district hopes that schools can hold belated in-person graduations on Aug. 1.

Lake Norman Charter School is shooting for an indoor socially distanced ceremony in mid-July, while Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte is waiting until late October, planning to merge graduation and homecoming.

The Union County school board hoped the governor’s Phase 2 reopening would allow in-person ceremonies in football stadiums. That’s an option just across the state line in South Carolina, and board Chair Melissa Merrell said surveys showed Union County families wanted to follow suit:

"Their preference by and large is an in-person stadium graduation maintaining social distance," she said at an emergency board meeting Thursday. "And the least popular option was a virtual graduation."

The issue became so heated that board members say some people protested outside the superintendent’s home. Merrell said the initial wording of the governor’s order sounded hopeful, but "then they snuck in a FAQ to basically kind of slap us on the hand and say no, you may not have it in your stadiums."

Officials looked at renting stadiums in South Carolina but came up dry. Faced with a choice between disappointing the seniors or defying the governor’s order, the Union school board voted 5-4 to hold the forbidden stadium ceremonies.

Is Outdoors Safe?

Outdoor settings don’t pose as much virus-spreading risk as enclosed spaces, but health experts told WFAE the Union County plan is still high risk because celebrating crowds are unlikely to observe safe distancing.

Hough High School in Cornelius posted signs with each graduate's name and photo outside the school.

Drive-through ceremonies are allowed in North Carolina, and that’s what Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools plans to do next week. Each of the district’s 31 high schools will post a video ceremony followed by students driving through their schools to pick up diplomas.

Meanwhile, CMS principals have found other ways to celebrate the class of 2020, such as individual yard signs, teachers cheering when seniors drive to school to pick up their caps and gowns and personal touches like South Meck Principal Glenn Starnes and the Sabres mascot knocking on junior marshals’ doors for photos.

Credit Maura MacKinnon / MacPhotography
Principal Glenn Starnes and the South Meck Sabres mascot visit a junior marshal.

But some CMS grads and parents were upset that the district didn’t do something flashier, like using Charlotte Motor Speedway. Cabarrus County Schools will hold drive-through events therestarting on June 12. Lincoln Charter was the first to try it, with Charlotte Christian School scheduled for Saturday night.

Crossing The Finish Line

Here’s how Lincoln Charter’s ceremony worked: Graduates had someone drive them to the finish line on the track where teachers were lined up waving checkered flags and cheering. The seniors got out, walked across a small stage, picked up a diploma and got congratulations – but no handshakes – from a handful of dignitaries. State Superintendent Mark Johnson was one of them.

Credit Ann Doss Helms / WFAE
Lincoln Charter students returned to the infield after picking up diplomas to watch classmates on the big screen.

"I think people are making the effort to social distance, especially when it comes to the families and the cars – they’re staying in their cars," Johnson said just before the event.

But Johnson wasn’t in the infield, where the graduates and their guests spent an hour or more before and after the diploma drive watching video tributes and live footage of their classmates walking across the stage.

It was a lovely evening, and seniors were reunited with friends they hadn’t seen since March. The part about staying in cars just wasn’t happening. There were almost no masks, and lots of young adults mingling, hugging and chatting with a lot less than six feet between them.

Credit Ann Doss Helms / WFAE
There wasn't a lot of social distancing in the infield at Lincoln Charter's Charlotte Motor Speedway ceremony.

Victoria Landers stood shoulder to shoulder with two friends and said she had no qualms about getting close.

"You get to see your classmates once again. We’ve all kind of been together since seventh grade, and we’re such a small senior class that it … a bunch of us are moving off and may never see each other again," she said.

Was she worried about the coronavirus?

"Absolutely not. It’s totally worth it. "

As ceremonies continue and health officials try to stay a step ahead of the pandemic, only one thing is clear: The graduations of 2020 are memorable, one way or another.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.