TUPELO • Instead of walking across the stage at BancorpSouth Arena in front of thousands of people, Tupelo High School’s Class of 2020 seniors are walking across a stage at one of five locations throughout the district with no more than four guests in attendance.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, each of Tupelo’s 475 seniors will have a 10-minute time slot to walk across the stage to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance,” receive their diploma and have photos taken by family members during an individual ceremony.
Those ceremonies began on Wednesday and will continue through Friday at five locations – the Performing Arts Center and small auditorium at Tupelo High School, the Civic Center at Tupelo Middle School and the auditoriums at Milam Elementary School and Lawhon Elementary School.
This approach was decided by a graduation committee that was formed less than a month ago and consists of students, parents, teachers and administrators.
Many precautions were taken on Wednesday as the first round of seniors graduated to ensure the safety of district employees as well as students and their families.
Students and guests were asked to remain in their cars until they were called by staff members to enter the building, and no more than 10 people were allowed in the auditoriums at a time, in accordance with CDC guidelines.
Entrances to auditoriums were propped open, handrails and other commonly touched surfaces were sanitized after each graduate walked the stage and restrooms were closed to the public in an effort to keep everyone safe, according to AP science teacher and graduation committee member Teresa Ware.
High school administrators donned blue masks with a yellow “T” while handing out diplomas, and all employees staffing the ceremonies had their temperatures checked to ensure no one had a fever.
As another precaution, graduates will not have to return their caps and gowns this year. One benefit to that, Dobbs said, is that all seniors will be invited back to campus to go out on the football field and toss their caps together this summer if guidelines are adjusted to allow for larger gatherings.
Class of 2020 senior Lillian Allen walked across the stage at Milam Elementary School on Wednesday morning and said that while she would have preferred a traditional graduation ceremony, she was happy to have a small group of people, including her sister, mother, grandmother and best friend, to come and support her.
“I’m getting the experience of a graduation, but without actually having that graduation,” Allen said. “I had a little bit of an experience, a mini graduation.”
Tyiashia Armstrong, another senior who walked the stage at Milam, said she felt blessed to be able to graduate as part of the Class of 2020.
“It would have been nice to be with all of our class, all together, because we all did it together,” Armstrong said. “But it’s still kind of cool to be able to walk (the stage.)”
Jamarcus Stephens’ ceremony was held at the Performing Arts Center, and he said although it’s not the same as in years past, it feels great to be a graduate.
“I’m sure it would have been a good experience, but I get to walk across a stage so it’s still a good feeling,” Stephens said. “As long as we still get to walk across a stage and we get our diploma, it’s still good.”
Kolton Hudson received his diploma at Lawhon Elementary on Wednesday afternoon and said that finishing high school feels like a weight has been lifted and he can now focus on the future.
His mother, Kristy Martin, said that Hudson’s graduation was a huge milestone because he had three heart surgeries as a baby and they “didn’t know if he was going to make it.”
“You’re lucky,” Martin told her son. “You have a purpose.”
Hudson said he feels fortunate to have an actual ceremony rather than being recognized solely online as some schools across the country have done.
“We’ll always be remembered as the 2020 Coronavirus Class,” Hudson said. “That’s not the best name for it, but it’s what we’re known for.”
“After all of this blows over, most of us hopefully will move on to better things and recognize our graduation as a little bright light in the darkness,” he added.
Videos of each student receiving their diplomas will be compiled into a full graduation ceremony by local video production firm Premium Productions. It will include an invocation, welcome speech, commencement address, Pledge of Allegiance, benediction and student speeches.
There will be a special tribute in the video for both Tiara Dancer, a 17-year-old senior who was shot and killed on Jan. 28, and Dreshawn Williams, an 18-year-old senior who was killed in a shooting on Tuesday night – only two days before he was set to walk across the stage at the Performing Arts Center.
Dancer had graduated early in December, but planned to walk the stage at graduation in May.
Dobbs said Williams’ mother will receive his cap and gown, and asked that everyone keep his family in their thoughts and prayers.
“Anything that we can do to help and reach out to that family right now, we’re going to do,” Dobbs said.
The graduation video will air on a Comcast channel and YouTube on Friday, May 22, the original graduation date. More details will be released to seniors closer to the date, but Dobbs said the Class of 2020 will be encouraged to throw their graduation caps into the air in their front yards at 8:05 p.m. after the video concludes.
So while they can’t be together for now, seniors will have the satisfaction of throwing their graduation caps into the air that evening, knowing hundreds of classmates are doing the same across Tupelo.