By Midge Pierce

For the Class of 2020, Commencement will go on, at least in a physically-distant, drive-through form. The determination of families, educators and graduates themselves to retain some of pomp and circumstance typically associated with high school graduation will be salvaged from the pandemic’s upheaval.

Portland Public Schools (PPS) has designated three, staggered Diploma Days, June 8, 9 and 10. Students will drive or walk-up to officials to receive their commencement credentials within the Governor’s safe distancing requirements.

Administrators have assured graduates that a professional photographer will be available to capture moments like the traditional cap toss into adulthood.

PPS will host Oregon’s first live, virtual senior prom, a music extravaganza, June 4 featuring Portland Trail Blazer disc jockey, DJ OG and other guest stars.

Celebration specifics will be provided by individual schools once commencement dates and times are decided on by each school. Cleveland High has chosen June 9 at this writing.

PPS is offering additional features for students and schools. Downloadable event programs to include remarks from principals and student leaders will be released and a video will be produced reviewing high points of the 2019-20 school year.

In a letter praising seniors for their hard work and understanding of health crisis-driven limitations, PPS High School Program Directors Elisa Schorr and Korinna Wolfe wrote, “We want to do what we can to protect traditions…in ways that keep students safe.”

“We are making history,” Cleveland High Senior Class co-Presidents Stephanie Singh and Quinn DeLaney said in near unison during a socially-distant, drive-up cap and gown distribution in the school parking lot prior to the PPS announcement. They expressed hopes that a future event such as a December reunion might enable classmates to say goodbye in person.

Senior class champion and Special Projects Manager Jan Watt, who celebrated her 50th year at Cleveland in 2019, expressed pride in honoring Cleveland’s Class of 2020 at the drive-through commencement and urged the two class presidents to have speeches ready for a “time we can all be physically together.” She suggested creative ideas to make memories last, like a time capsule classmates could open years later.

At the May cap and gown distribution, Watt was joined by Josten representative Brian Coushay who delivered robes to 25 metro high schools. She called the pandemic a wake up call that is forcing young people to find different ways to navigate their lives and grow up faster.

Local Parent Teacher Associations (PTA) have stepped up to make the Class of 2020 feel special as well. Cleveland’s PTA gifted each student with a congratulatory yard sign and a commemorative pennant in lieu of traditional activities like the Association’s annual Senior Surprise Party.

To make gown distribution a more meaningful event, PTA President Amy Lewin and Treasurer Cindi Carrell coordinated gifts and logistics for the school’s unsung heroes – the teachers, coaches and counselors.

Beyond local celebrations, the whole nation has been saluting the Class of 2020. A national broadcast special honoring graduates last month featured Oprah Winfrey, 44th President Barack Obama and LeBron James who exhorted seniors to go out and change the world.

Speakers said the hardships this class faces entering a society with shrinking jobs, resources and educational options are unparalleled in recent times.

At SE’s Franklin High School in mid-May, families were navigating uncertainty as they awaited PPS guidance. Renee Carter, mother of a valedictorian, suggested seniors be allowed to mark the rite of passage by running over the goal line.

Beyond graduation disappointments, she expressed frustration at how slow PPS was to reboot classes online and administrator’s cessation of classes for a month in order to develop distance learning options she felt should have been readily available.

Carter’s son, Tyler Mapes, said he felt online school for seniors was largely ineffective with many classmates slacking off. Describing his generation as a “petri dish” for the future, Mapes said he was focused on independent study and reviews for the final AP exams he must submit to his college, despite some institutes of higher learning adopting test-optional policies for 2020.

Mapes’ hard work has paid off. He was granted a full ride to scholarship to The California Institute of Technology in Southern CA next year. His summer plans to work as a lifeguard were derailed by the closure of community facilities and pools.

In response to student and family frustrations about slow online class rebooting, PPS acknowledged concerns and said the initial distance learning focus was on overcoming barriers to equitable student access.

To further ensure fairness, the district implemented “pass or incomplete” grading rather than standard letter grades for the interrupted semester. The district says teachers are doing the best they can to adapt new technologies and reach out to individual students.

Fellow Franklin valedictorian Arthur Feidelson landed a frontline job for the summer delivering food for Fred Meyer before heading east to Fordham College in NY. Questions remain about how his plans may be altered by the impacts of the coronavirus.

Other graduates have decided to take a “gap year” before beginning college. Cleveland’s DeLaney says her Fall plans may include tutoring young children whose education is currently happening outside school walls.

For Seniors, one consolation emerges: on the cusp of adulthood, members of the Class of 2020 have already transformed tomorrow.