One-of-a-kind graduation caps unprecedented year

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

Champlain Valley Union High School pulled off a graduation ceremony unlike any other on Friday, retaining essential elements of tradition while working around the public health guidelines of the times. 

“It was a little bit of Woodstock, a little bit of drive-in theater and a little bit of a party,” described Karen Needler, the Class of 2020 advisor and an organizer of the event.

Three hundred thirty-five graduates walked across the stage on a sunny, windy day at the Champlain Valley Fairgrounds in Essex, congregating in groups of 25, standing 6 feet apart — per state regulations related to the coronavirus pandemic — to be recognized individually in front of friends and family members. They had arrived in separate cars to cheering faculty members and live music from a student band.

Speakers were broadcast over the airwaves into car radios, and a large video screen simulcast the event.

For the Expo, it was a dry run of the sound system that’s been put in place for a new summer drive-in concert series.

For the Class of 2020, it was the culmination of a year of unprecedented challenges. 

“The students were delighted and surprised and really happy with the way it ended,” Needler said. 

Rahn Fleming, CVU’s head football coach and a 20-year educator at the school, was chosen in January as the class’ graduation speaker. He delivered a speech focused on inclusiveness and the power of working together. 

“He is the most genuine person,” said Needler. “Everyone admires him, and he sees the best in everyone.”

Student leaders made a late request to add Christel Tonoki as a graduation speaker. Tonoki is a member of the Racial Alliance Committee, and spoke against systemic racism, which has become an international cause since the police killing of George Floyd in May.

The ceremony was also a chance to distribute scholarships in honor of Connor Lewis, a classmate who died as a freshman. 

The graduation ceremony capped a senior week that included a virtual convocation and a drive-by distribution of items donated by local businesses, drinks and sweets. It was the first time the students and teachers had seen each other since early March, when school buildings were closed down due to the pandemic. 

Since then, the class has had the typical feelings of “senioritis” that come in the final semester of senior year, compounded by the barriers of remote learning.

“There was an overall burnout and sadness,” Needler acknowledged. “A lot of kids were pretty done. They were kind of going through the motions.

“Not being together was the biggest disappointment. They thought they weren’t going to have a chance to be together.”

Friday’s graduation ceremony gave them that chance. And there are plans to reconvene next summer for a one-year reunion.