COVID-19 doesn’t stop Lee County high school graduations

Mike Still • Jun 7, 2020 at 9:00 AM

JONESVILLE — Sierra Danielle Williams achieved a double-first Saturday: She was the last student to walk in the first COVID-19-impacted graduation ceremony at Lee High School.

Williams and 167 other seniors from Lee and 48 seniors from Thomas Walker went through a traditional graduation ceremony over a three-day period ending Saturday, but with several differences.

Lee High, with the larger number of graduates of the county’s two high schools, held three six-hour sessions starting Thursday in which each graduate and their immediate family had the school gym to themselves, two photographers, a videographer and Lee High Principal Renea Clark for the traditional march across the graduation stage. The class valedictorian and salutatorian each marched and gave their speeches to a camera, which recorded each graduate’s march for a video to be sent to each member of the Class of 2020.

In spite of the pandemic’s impact on several activities the senior class would have had otherwise, Clark said the event was better than a virtual ceremony and has gotten good feedback from the community.

“We feel like this has been a very, very good thing for the students,” Clark said. “It’s given a more individualized approach to each student. As an alternative situation, we feel it’s been a good way to honor students and celebrate their graduation.”

Outside the high school, students and family groups arrived in relays for their appointed times, where they were escorted to waiting areas and a registration table.

While state emergency orders prevented Clark from shaking hands with each graduate and hand them their diplomas personally, each student had photos taken by school faculty in individual and family group sessions. As seniors left the gym, volunteers Lawanna Quillen and Jessica Phipps presented each graduate with a personalized lawn sign and a class T-shirt before the family groups went to the cannon on the school grounds for a final photo by Lee County Career Center Assistant Principal Dawn Crabtree.

“I’ve gotten everybody as they came out for the past three days,” Crabtree said. “We were very lucky Friday. It rained just after one family had their photo taken, and it stopped just before the next family came outside.”

Jamie Weston watched as Crabtree took photos of his wife, Elizabeth, and graduating daughter, Kayla.

“It’s good that they got something,” Weston said, adding that the at-home routine since mid-March, when Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the state’s public schools closed for the pandemic, “was just a lot of stuff at home.”

“But we live on a farm, so there was plenty to keep everyone busy,” Weston added.

Kayla Weston said her past summer plans center on attending Emory & Henry College this fall on band and Merit Trustee scholarships.

“I want to major in nursing and study art and music too if I can,” she said. “My professor has already sent my sheet music, and the college is getting ready to do as many in-person classes as they can.”

Elizabeth Weston said the school’s closing due to the pandemic affected several activities her daughter had planned for the year.

“Senior trip, 4-H trip, she was going to be busy,” Elizabeth Weston said.

Senior Darrien Yeary grinned and held up his diploma as his family waited at the photo station.

“Oh gosh,” Yeary said when asked how he felt about graduating. “Now that we’re finished, it’s crazy to think what we all went through.”

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