It's graduation season. But thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, ceremonies are likely to be anything but typical for the class of 2020. For seniors at Webster County High School in Dixon, Ky., that meant a no-contact, drive-through ceremony.
On Friday, 146 graduates and their families lined up in vehicles — many decorated with streamers, paint and balloons — at the school, each waiting for their chance to drive up to the entrance. Once there, the rules were simple: exit your family's car, walk up the red carpet, pick your diploma up off the table, pose for a quick picture and go back to your car.
No contact whatsoever — even with the handful of school administrators standing more than six feet away.
Eighteen-year-old Ali Avery Jr., who goes by A.J., was one of the seniors who made this unusual walk to get his diploma.
A few days before the ceremony, which was live-streamed on YouTube, he told NPR that he was shocked when first heard he wouldn't get to receive his diploma in front of a crowded gymnasium.
"I didn't expect [COVID-19] to hit Webster County that fast," he said. "It doesn't seem real until it actually affects you."
Avery was also really looking forward to an in-person graduation because he had been voted by his classmates to give the commencement speech.
"To see my parents look at me, just to see their faces when I walk down and get my diploma," he said. "I think that's a real emotional moment for everybody and now we don't get that."
But after Friday's ceremony, during which he drove through in his family's red four-door pickup truck decorated with a huge banner noting his athletic and scholastic achievements, Avery's tune had changed. He was now acting like, well, someone who had just graduated high school.
"I feel great, it was bigger than I thought it would be, more people came out," he said. "It was just amazing."
For Webster County and its roughly 13,000 people, graduation is a big deal. There's only one high school, fed by the quintessential small, rural towns that dot the county nestled in the rolling hills of Western Kentucky. Once the drive-through ceremony ended, graduates returned to those towns to parade. They were greeted by friends, neighbors and family who, despite the rainy evening, lined the main thoroughfares to cheer them on.
Principal Jarrod Hankins said that because Webster County High School is a "multigenerational school," the community had to be involved in the altered graduation ceremony plans.
"Most of the grandparents went to school here, the parents went to school here, so the kids are going to school here," he told NPR.
Furthermore, it's typical for nearly 50% of a graduating class not to go to college, Hankins said, instead going straight into a trade or, until recently, the coal mines.
"This is the highest level of education that some students are going to have," he said. "So that's a special moment for that family."
A.J. Avery, who is headed to college in the fall, said, in the end, his graduation was actually very special. (And he did get to make the commencement address, it was just prerecorded.)
"It gave me goosebumps just hearing people call my name. Just feeling the love and support of the community was just amazing," he said. "They truly did something marvelous and unforgettable."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Graduation season is a lot different in 2020. The pandemic has been forcing schools around the world to adapt their ceremonies. On Friday, one high school in rural western Kentucky still found a way to make graduation a big event. NPR's Ashley Westerman has more.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
A J AVERY: Still nervous, but it's getting closer to crunch time. We've got about an hour...
ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: Eighteen-year-old AJ Avery is getting ready for his graduation. His mom, Dana, provided NPR with this cellphone video.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
DANA: Buttoning up his shirt.
WESTERMAN: But because of the pandemic, graduation won't be typical. Weeks ago, officials at the high school decided it was too risky to do a traditional ceremony in the gym. AJ tells me on Zoom...
AVERY: First, I was in shock. I was like, now I know this COVID-19 virus is just in China. You know, I didn't expect it to hit Webster County that fast. It doesn't seem real until it actually affects you.
WESTERMAN: The county has had more than 30 confirmed cases of the virus and no deaths. So AJ and the other 146 seniors would don their caps and gowns and pick up their diplomas drive-through style. Only a handful of school staff will be present. It will be livestreamed on YouTube for everybody else. And while thankful to get a ceremony at all, AJ is skeptical.
AVERY: I would surely rather have a in-person graduation to see my parents look at me. And I know they're already proud but just to see their faces when I walk down and get my diploma.
WESTERMAN: In a place like this, a rural, mostly farming community, graduations are a big deal. Multiple family generations go to the county high school because it's the only one around. And, frankly, a lot of people never move away from here. AJ plans to go to college. But first, graduation. When the time comes, the Avery family loads up their pickup truck and drives to the high school to get in line.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Avery, bud (ph), come around, please.
WESTERMAN: Decorated cars filled with seniors and their families snake around the campus. Finally, it's AJ's turn. Principal Jarrod Hankins announces him.
JARROD HANKINS: Next up, we have Mr. AJ Avery. Mr. Avery, if you could, walk up your red carpet and get your diploma.
WESTERMAN: AJ picks up his diploma off the table - no handshake, only cheers and smiles from administrators standing at least 6 feet away and a quick photo before hopping back in the car.
HANKINS: Congratulations again, Mr. AJ Avery.
(SOUNDBITE OF CARS HONKING)
WESTERMAN: Afterward, the seniors parade through their small hometowns led by first responders. People lined up on the main thoroughfare in the town of Providence to cheer on AJ and the other seniors.
WESTERMAN: Afterward, mom Dana is almost in tears.
DANA: Oh, I loved it. I was so excited 'cause these kids has been through a lot to be able to graduate, and the whole community of Webster County come together and pulled it together. And I'm just overjoyed.
WESTERMAN: And the graduate himself...
AVERY: I feel great. You know, it was bigger than I thought it would be. More people came out. It was just amazing.
(SOUNDBITE OF CARS HONKING)
WESTERMAN: So take that, COVID-19.
Ashley Westerman, NPR News, Webster County, Ky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.