The high school class of 2020 has had to adapt to a lot of changes during their senior year due to the pandemic – everything from classes to prom to graduation. One high school in Westville used a drive-in movie theater to give students a socially distant in-person commencement over the weekend.
Jaron Hannon is packed in a car with his friends. They’re on their way to their high school graduation, but it’s not at all how they pictured it.
He pulls into the 49’er Drive-in theater to watch his teachers give speeches on stage from the comfort of a 2011 black Honda Accord.
Hannon is the valedictorian of the Westville High School Class of 2020. He’s one of 78 seniors at Westville whose last year of high school was drastically changed by the pandemic.
“I know that I feel, and my friends too, feel a bit short changed because the end of senior year is one of the best experiences in high school,” Hannon says. “Everything is coming to an end, the workload isn’t as hard, and there’s a bunch of fun stuff we can do like prom and senior skip day that we never got to have. It just feels like we left high school unfinished.”
Kaitlyn Bishop is another graduating Westville Blackhawk. She says the thought of not being together for graduation to mark the end of senior year was especially hard for the students at Westville because it’s a K-12 school. Many of the students, like Bishop, have been together since the start.
“It’s a big milestone we look forward to and it’s not just ‘oh I get a piece of paper.’ You’ve worked since kindergarten to get [your diploma],” she says. “I know the pandemic is horrible for anybody but I know for a lot of seniors, this is what we’ve been anticipating and waiting for.”
So Bishop was relieved to find out Westville School officials were determined to give students an in-person graduation ceremony by using a drive-in movie theater.
“It may not be the ideal graduation, but it is something where everybody can witness that and it’s not just a drive-through or virtual.”
On graduation day, the 49’er Drive-in theater was decorated with black and orange, the official school colors. Graduates drove to the ceremony with their families and friends in cars with painted windows with phrases like “congrats grad!” They listened to the valedictorian and class president give speeches through their car radios and watched on the big screen.
“We may think the world has robbed us from some of the best parts of high school,” Hannon says during his valedictorian speech to fellow classmates. “Senior prom, spring sports, the last day of school, a deep-dive into ‘senioritis,’ It feels like we are maybe leaving things uninfinished. But that’s how life goes sometimes.”
Then seniors got out of the cars and lined up with 6-feet of space in between each other. Each student waited for their name to be called, walked across the stage with their diploma already in hand, posed for a picture, then returned to their car.
They wore matching black and orange face masks with the Westville High School logo for a class picture.
Family members took pictures and videos by hanging out of car windows, honking instead of clapping to honor the new graduates.
Westville Principal Alissa Schnick is the one who came up with the idea of a drive-in graduation. She says the school staff had to be flexible during the planning process because the pandemic conditions were quickly changing.
“I could never let the students down,” she says. “My top priority is to help these students be successful and graduation is certainly a part of that last step in feeling successful. For them to have that moment and have this ceremony be as special as possible, given the circumstances, is my top priority.”
Schnick says she wishes there was more Westville could do to give students that ‘sense of normalcy,’ but she hopes if nothing else, that their graduation ceremony was memorable.
“They’re going to feel like they’ve missed out on some things, feeling short handed because they can’t be here every day. I’m hoping that with this class, they’ll remember what we did to still honor them.”
Bishop says even though the pandemic changed a lot of what she was expecting from her senior year, it taught her a lesson.
“I’ll definitely take into consideration to live in the moment, enjoy everything while you have it and don’t take anything for granted.”
Bishop says that’s something she’ll remember as life continues – expect the unexpected.
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