Graduations in the middle of a pandemic

BY HANNAH MCCLELLAN, News + Record Staff
Posted 7/31/20

SILER CITY — Avery Headen smiled as she approached the makeshift stage outside Jordan-Matthews High School on June 13, her diploma in hand and Pomp and Circumstance playing over the loudspeaker. It …

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Graduations in the middle of a pandemic

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SILER CITY — Avery Headen smiled as she approached the makeshift stage outside Jordan-Matthews High School on June 13, her diploma in hand and Pomp and Circumstance playing over the loudspeaker. It wasn’t a normal graduation — her family watched from their parked car instead of stadium seating — but after all the hard work over the last four years in high school and the difficult emotions from the last four months of living through a pandemic, she was just happy to be graduating.

“Avery Grace Headen,” Jordan-Matthews Principal Tripp Crayton called out on the loudspeaker. “You may now turn your tassel.” It wasn’t perfect, and she wished she were turning her tassel surrounded by friends, but as her family cheered for her, she felt accomplished just the same. Finally, she was a graduate.

“It was definitely the best they could’ve done under the circumstances,” Headen said. “I appreciated the graduation they gave us even if they couldn’t give us the traditional ceremony.”

Headen is one of the many students that make up the class of 2020 — a class that was unexpectedly forced to say goodbye to their friends, their sports and their graduation traditions in the wake of COVID-19. For many students, not knowing if their graduations would be taken away too was one of the hardest parts of coping with the grief and disappointment that marked their last months of high school.

“All the unknown made everything so devastating,” Headen said.

Chatham County’s traditional high schools — Jordan-Matthews, Northwood and Chatham Central — hosted variations of drive-by ceremonies for their graduates, along with Chatham and Woods Charter schools. Many of the schools, including non-traditional schools Chatham School of Science and Engineering and SAGE Academy, also celebrated graduates through Facebook posts and videos. Students and families had mixed feelings about the modified ceremonies, but it was clear that planning a graduation during a pandemic presented quite the challenge for administrators.

Jordan-Matthews planned to also have an in-person ceremony Aug. 1, after hearing student feedback, but recently canceled the event when Gov. Roy Cooper announced North Carolina would be remaining in Phase 2.

“When we started planning what we ended up calling our individualized graduation experience,” Crayton, the Jordan-Matthews principal, said. “Our goal was to create a moment when students could receive their diplomas and families could take pictures. I’m really proud of how our creative staff worked together to make the day a success, and I’m especially glad I got to call out the names and recognize our great class of 2020.”

For Northwood graduate Kaitlyn Beal, it was particularly disappointing to not be able to see her friends or classmates graduate. Beal, who will be attending the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in the fall, wished the school had found a way to give students a more traditional, socially distanced ceremony.

“The whole thing lasted about five minutes and you couldn’t watch other people — it was very secluded,” she said. “It didn’t even feel real and it was so fast. My parents were kind of disappointed by the whole thing, but I think everyone felt that way.”

Similarly to Jordan-Matthews, Northwood’s graduation involved students walking down the makeshift (sidewalk) stage, grabbing their diploma and taking a picture before returning to their cars. At Chatham Central, the school did a “hybrid graduation,” which involved one family and one student entering the school’s auditorium to watch their student walk across the stage.

Bridget Coates, a Chatham Central parent, was proud to see her son graduate, but upset because she felt parents and students weren’t heard. Like Jordan-Matthews, Chatham Central also planned a traditional in-person ceremony for later in the summer, but it was eventually canceled.

“I’m proud of my son and was happy he graduated,” Coates said. “Parents and students should’ve been heard and listened to. Other districts had great plans. Parents in the community pooled together to present viable options and we were ignored.”

Shelbi Hilliard, who graduated from Chatham Central and will attend Central Carolina Community College in the fall, said her family was a little disappointed by the ceremony but she was just happy to have it over.

“In the beginning I felt robbed of my senior year, but toward the end it got tiring how it was being handled,” Hilliard said. “It didn’t feel real — not in a sense of ‘there’s no way I’m graduating right now,’ but more like it had just had no other events that would usually happen leading up to it. No final games, no last prom, no yearbook signings. It just felt like another day, except I had on a cap and gown.”

After Headen graduated, she texted her group chat of friends, “Oh my gosh, we’re graduated, that’s so cool!” Though of course she would have preferred a “normal” graduation, she knew the schools were doing the best they could. And without a crowd of people watching her walk, Headen still felt celebrated by the people that mattered most.

“That was still our graduation day,” she said. “I won’t ever know what the traditional graduation is like, so I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything.”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at


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