Chester graduation balances celebration, safety

CHESTER GRADUATES release balloons following commencement on Saturday afternoon. Bringing closure in this way was safer than the traditional receiving line that ends graduation most years.

Balancing celebration and safety, the Chester Area School District held commencement exercises for the graduating class of 2020 in the school gym at 2 p.m. on Saturday.

Attendance was limited to six family members per graduate and masks were recommended. While family groups were seated together, the distance between them was more than the recommended six feet. Even graduates on the stage found themselves distanced from one another.

"It's good to get some finality for our graduating seniors and their families," Superintendent Heath Larson observed after the ceremony.

In his welcoming remarks, Larson made reference to the three Rs which are usually the focus of education: reading, 'riting and 'rithmatic. He went on to say the Chester graduates exemplified another set of Rs, the first being "ready."

"You're ready to take on or go to the next challenge," he said.

Larson made reference to the historical milieu in which this year's graduates were born -- the events surrounding the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 -- and the sacrifices they were forced to make as a result of being seniors during the COVID-19 pandemic. He noted they handled with grace losing the opportunity to attend prom, athletic events and other school activities.

"You're resilient, and that will serve you well moving forward," he said, indicating the second R.

The final R was radiant. Larson said that as a class, the graduates of 2020 have enjoyed success in many areas. He noted especially how well they did as juniors on the Smarter Balanced Assessment, the student assessment administered annually to determine how well students are doing in English language arts, mathematics and science.

Three graduates were recognized as valedictorians. Principal Julie Eppard indicated all of them had maintained a 4.0 average throughout high school. They shared the honor of giving the valedictorian address.

Bailee Anderson thanked the teachers who had instructed them. Tiffany Mohr talked about the bonds which unite members of the class.

"We were born around 9-11 and graduated during a pandemic. We've always managed to stay together and be friends," she said. She reviewed some highlights of their years together, and concluded, "No matter what challenges we faced, we all had the best time getting here."

Elizabeth Selman thanked the others who helped the graduates over the years, including their parents.

"Your support is one of the reasons we are here today," she said.

Selman also shared with those in attendance what she described as "the final words of the Class of 2020": "The tassel is worth the hassle."

The class recognized Bonnie Graff with the Friend of Education award. Following the ceremony, Larson explained Graff is an active school volunteer as well as the grandmother of one of the graduates.

In presenting the class and the diplomas, the school district chose safety over tradition. Students, who were seated on the bleachers during the class video, picked up their diplomas from a table as their names were called and they returned to the stage one by one.

Traditionally, they would have been handed their diplomas and would have shaken hands with the school superintendent and with the school board president.

Rather than bringing the ceremony to a close with a receiving line, the district once again opted for safety by having graduates release balloons outside the school gym. Graduates then mingled outdoors with those who attended the event, which allowed social distancing and avoided the congestion which is often part of a receiving line.