D200522 austin graduation

A graduate becomes emotional as Salutatorian Parker Vandine speaks before fellow classmates Thursday during Austin High’s graduation at Austin High School. More photos on A5. [DAN BUSEY/DECATUR DAILY]

With temperature checks, mask requirements and spaced-apart chairs, Austin High seniors participated in a graduation ceremony Thursday that was unique in the school's almost 60-year history.

Graduating senior Javen Pagan said having a graduation ceremony during the coronavirus pandemic only made the event more meaningful.

“I think it’s amazing, to be honest. It’s very special, and I think that the faculty worked very hard to get us out here and let us enjoy the experience,” Pagan said. “I think it’s more special that everybody came together and let this happen for us.”

Until last week, seniors weren't even they'd have a commencement until later in the year because of the pandemic that ended in-school instruction in March.

Dwight Satterfield, the deputy superintendent of school safety and student services, said seniors and parents had the opportunity to fill out a survey indicating whether they’d prefer to hold graduation events in small groups, or wait to hold a ceremony as an entire class.

“About 70% preferred to wait until the whole group was available,” Satterfield said. “And with the adjustments to the stay-at-home order, it gave us the ability to do that.”

Under normal circumstances, each senior is allotted eight graduation tickets for guests. This year, each student was limited to four tickets, and some students expressed disappointment they weren’t able to bring as many members of their family as they would have liked.

Graduating senior Lane Williams said of the four-person limit, “I know that kind of stinks, but I’m just thankful we’re having a graduation. I’m so thankful.”

Satterfield said even with more tickets for previous graduations, there have been students who wished for more.

“Even previous years when we’ve given eight, there’s always someone that’s needed 10 or 12, so that’s always been an issue,” Satterfield said. “It’s a little more compounded this time, and we understand there’s some students that had to make tough decisions.”

Satterfield said he felt good about the safety precautions put in place. “Regardless of how you feel about some of these safety precautions, it’s for the good of the community, and their patience and their assistance in trying to follow these guidelines will do nothing but protect this community as a whole.”

In order to be admitted into the ceremony, guests had to pass a temperature screen. Nurses were stationed at multiple entry points on the south end of the football field taking temperatures and ensuring that guests were wearing masks. While many guests had their masks on as they exited their vehicles, some waited until they approached the entrance to put them on.

Graduating senior Justice Stanley said the opportunity to attend graduation is one that everyone has been waiting for.

“I really do appreciate everyone making this happen,” Stanley said. “This is what you’ve been waiting for. Graduation is the most important thing.”

Austin High School drama teacher Jennifer Lee said she thinks it’s good for the seniors to experience graduation, and to experience closure for this part of their lives. She also said she thinks graduation may be happening a little earlier than it should.

“I think as long as everyone follows (the safety guidelines) it should be fine,” Lee said.

Graduating senior Rosalyn Johnson was nervous about the ceremony continuing as planned. Still, she said she was happy the ceremony was happening.

“We all thought that it was probably going to be either not at all or in June, and some of us, we’re going to college. (We) can’t make that, so (we’re) very thankful,” Johnson said.

The process of getting students and guests from their cars into the football stadium seemed to go smoothly. Guests were asked to wear masks between vehicles and seats. A fairly even mix of guests wore masks even after reaching their seats.

Sarah Payne, the lead nurse for Decatur City Schools, said people handled the safety precautions well.

“So far it’s gone really well,” Payne said, about 90 minutes before the ceremony began.

“Everybody’s been receptive to wearing their masks and getting their temperatures taken, and my nurses have been willing and ready to do it, so we’re glad that the kids are getting to graduate.”

“I couldn’t be more pleased at the point of entry with how things have gone,” Satterfield said.

Even as light rain began falling, spirits were high before the ceremony.

“I think it’s more meaningful, being that they did everything for us,” Williams said of school faculty and staff who organized the ceremony. “They didn’t have to, but they did it anyway.”

Graduating senior Latasia Bogus said she’s happy the ceremony was held.

“I feel like 2020 has been a rough year,” Bogus said, adding that safety precautions should not be taken lightly.

“This pandemic is serious, (and) people need to take it seriously,” Bogus said.

The ceremony was live-streamed on the Decatur City Schools’ YouTube channel. Shortly after the ceremony began at 7 p.m., there were more than 750 people viewing the livestream and nearly 80 comments.

Graduating senior Delroy Tulloch said he was excited about the opportunity to attend graduation, despite the restrictions.

“I think that everyone tried really hard to make it happen. I think that it’s a blessing from God, because it wasn’t going to happen about a month ago,” Tulloch said.

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cassie.kuhn@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2469. Twitter @ DD_CassieKuhn.

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