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PHS staff pulls off fantastic graduation feat

PHS staff pulls off fantastic graduation feat

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Powhatan High School staff members deserve a huge round of applause for the graduation feat they pulled off on July 25.

Putting on a successful graduation ceremony of any kind has to be difficult. Pulling off five back-to-back ceremonies and all that entails – including cleaning between them and working to maintain proper social distancing throughout – is a Herculean effort.

Here are the basics. The school had about 250 students out of a graduating class of 317 commit to attending the special in-person ceremonies, which were held as early as the division could manage under the current state guidelines. It is disappointing that all of the graduates of the Class of 2020 couldn’t be there for the event because they worked hard for 13 years to achieve that recognition and suffered through the loss of some of the best moments of their senior year as a result of COVID-19.

With those 250 students who said they could attend, the school planned five graduation ceremonies honoring 50 graduates in each. This allowed for them to be adequately spaced out in one section of the PHS auditorium and their family and friends – each graduate was allowed four guests – to be seated together in designated spots throughout the auditorium.

When the students and their families arrived at their allotted graduation time, they were split up. The family members were escorted into the auditorium to sit in specially numbered seats spread around the room that saw them spaced apart from other guests.

The students were taken to a back hallway, where a long line of 50 chairs sitting 6 feet apart was set up for them to sit while they awaited instructions and the start of their ceremony. When that time came, they too got the experience of coming into a room with their fellow students and loved ones wearing their graduation cap and gown to the sound of “Pomp and Circumstance.”

Now, about the ceremony. Yes, it was shorter. I would say the ceremonies averaged about 45 minutes each, with little differences because of minor changes in the ceremony and how it ran. But while I was not a graduate or a family member in any of these ceremonies, I left the graduations that day feeling the students were given one of the best possible solutions they could have gotten under current circumstances.

Principal Mike Massa read some staggering achievements of the Class of 2020 that were no less impressive even if you heard them multiple times. Powhatan’s five school board members took turns addressing the students at the different ceremonies. Valedictorian Rachel Stegner, salutatorian Talmadge Wheat Fralin, and class president Riley Little spent the day at the school and spoke to all five groups of graduating seniors and they definitely deserve special recognition for that selflessness.

Each of the students still had that moment of hearing their name called and the applause that followed, walking across the stage, and receiving the diploma they worked so hard to achieve.

And when it was all over, the students met their parents in a portion of the parking lot where they still had time on a hot but clear day to take photos together, with their diplomas, and with their fellow students before leaving the high school for possibly the last time.

While they were doing that, staff members were inside getting ready for the next ceremony. Of special note, Dr. Jason Tibbs, director of facilities, went through the auditorium with a hydro-static sprayer to sanitize the seats between ceremonies. A special shout-out to him for enduring my Ghostbusters jokes.

Another special shout-out goes to Julian Toman, a former PHS student who was asked to take photos of all five graduations. The photos are going to be made available to families for free, which is a great bonus.

Were there some things people probably missed? Absolutely. It is a shame that the entire class couldn’t be there together to share the same ceremony after many of them have shared so many memories for most, if not all, of their school careers.

I hate that the students didn’t get that final handshake from their principal telling them, “Congratulations, you made it.” I remember it being an empowering moment at my high school graduation, but I absolutely understand why it wouldn’t have been wise with our current precautions.

And I missed my favorite moment of any graduation ceremony, which is always the cap toss at the end – simply because it is a moment of pure joy.

But there were so many more things to celebrate, most importantly, the students and making sure they felt recognized on their graduation day for what they had achieved. For making that happen, I’ll say it again, PHS staff members deserve a huge round of applause.

Laura McFarland may be reached at

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