Class of 2020 Graduation will be June 6

Principal Blankenship addresses the crowd during last year's ceremony.

Challenging might be the most appropriate word to describe the times for the Class of 2020. Like all public school students, Swain County High School seniors had to make the adjustment to online instruction in March when in person schooling was cancelled due to concerns over the spread of the novel coronavirus.

From the beginning, Swain County Schools leadership was determined to have a ceremony to recognize the Class of 2020 that has gone without many of the traditional markers that honor their hard work. On Tuesday, the district announced Class of 2020 will have an outdoor graduation ceremony Saturday, June 6, but this will look like no other ceremony in the past as social distancing restrictions will be in place.

The graduation will be held at the Swain Memorial Stadium while adhering to the maximum gathering of 25 people or less as required by Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order 141. This will mean the class of more than 100 students will be broken up into groups to enter the field and receive their diplomas and limits have been set on the number that can watch from the field or from their vehicles.

The entire ceremony will be broadcast live on the Maroon Devils network.

The district awaited the governor’s Phase II of lifting social distancing restrictions to make the announcement. Superintendent Mark Sale shares what went into planning during this unique time.

“This is an unprecedented time. Our concerns have been threefold. First, staying within DHHS guidelines regarding mass gathering limitations to ensure health and safety has been at the forefront,” Sale said. “The second concern is equally important, and that has been honoring our seniors along with their families. Graduation is a community event that brings a sense of closure while also marking the start of the next chapter in our graduates lives.”

He added, “The third element came from the community as they responded to an original plan that removed some of the traditions. We were reminded of the importance of traditions in Swain County Schools. And so, we began to look at plans that would accomplish all of these goals. For that reason, we delayed final decisions until after Phase II opened.”

The graduation committee accomplished the goals with this plan, Sale said, adding they did a “tremendous job of addressing the challenges of this time while showing compassion for our seniors and their families.”

The hardest part of planning was trying to plan for the unknown, added Swain High Principal Sonya Blankenship.

“We didn't know what Gov. Cooper was going to do with the phases and what the gatherings rule was going to be. The other part that was a challenge is that this is a big deal in our community and so many people love the graduation celebration and all its traditions and COVID 19 prevented so many of those. We did our best to incorporate as many of those as was possible given the circumstances and safety protocols that are mandated.”

Having an in-person ceremony was considered critical to honor the seniors.

“The opportunity for a senior to walk across a stage, receive a diploma in the presence of their family and friends, and be congratulated as well as celebrated, has been paramount,” Sale said. “There has never been a thought toward anything other than a face-to-face opportunity for our seniors.”

Blankenship agrees, adding that the mission district's mission statement revolves around community.

"This was my number one priority when we bagan planning- no matter what or how it was going to be face to face. I hate that it can't be everything that everyone is accustomed to, but we are walking in uncharted waters, with no guarantees of what the next steps will look like," she said.

Blankenship contacted the seniors individually to get input on the plans for graduation. From that input, the decision was made to move forward with an in person ceremony June 6.

Graduation speeches will begin at 8 a.m. and be attended by the school administration with the student speakers being the first gradautes.

Then, staggered entrances will follow for the remaining graduates through 5 p.m.

Each graduate will receive 5 car passes for families and friends. While only 17 people can get out of the vehicles to view the ceremony from the field all will be able to see the presentation from the 5 vehicles. Chairs will be available on the field for family members with physical limitations and will be sanitized between each presentation.

In addition to graduation June 6, the school system has announced they will be working with local ministers to participate in a Drive-in Baccalaureate service on Sunday, May 31. It will be held at the recreation park with a stage area on the hill beside the baseball field. The start time will be 2:30 p.m.

“This is another tradition that is important to our community,” Sale said.

The Maroon Devils network will also have a DVD recording of graduation that will be available later for $10.