Washougal High School plans in-person graduation ceremony for Class of 2020

Event to be held at Fishback Stadium in early August; school district officials say they will adhere to state's COVID-19 restrictions in place at that time

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(Post-Record file photos) Crowds gather at Fishback Stadium in June 2019 for the Class of 2019 graduation event. Washougal High plans to hold an in-person graduation ceremony for the Class of 2020 graduates on Aug. 8. District officials say the event will follow COVID-19 distancing restrictions in place at the time.

Washougal High School’s class of 2020 graduates will get two graduation ceremonies this year, including an in-person event scheduled to take place Aug. 8 at Fishback Stadium.

Washougal High School Principal Sheree Gomez-Clark last week announced plans for a virtual graduation ceremony on Saturday, June 6, and an in-person graduation ceremony on Saturday, Aug. 8.

“The students still want to be celebrated,” Washougal School District Superintendent Mary Templeton said. “For a while we were hopeful that we could celebrate in person (in June), but when we heard last week that the stay-at-home order had been extended out, we realized the (June in-person ceremony) wasn’t in our future. We talked about several virtual options, but determined that a livestream was the best fit for us.”

The students, however, had other ideas.

“The kids said, ‘We’re good with the virtual ceremony, but we still want an in-person ceremony as well,'” Templeton said.

“We all wanted to have an in-person graduation ceremony, whenever that could happen,” Washougal High senior Emma Spaeth said. “And we didn’t want to be split up — (last names starting with) A-J one day, and K-Z the next. We all want to graduate together. We’re like a family. Our class is a really close-knit, and being together for something as special as graduation is important to all of us.”

In a letter sent to seniors last week, Gomez-Clark said school leaders considered many factors in planning the two graduation events.

“The first was the safety and health of our students and families,” she stated in the letter to students and families. “The second but equally important (factor) was making sure that we have an in-person ceremony. Class of 2020 students and families, staff and community members overwhelmingly shared the desire for an in-person event, even if it was held later. We know that a few of our students may not be able to attend in August as they may already be headed off to their post-secondary programs, so it was critical for us to make sure that we could hold both virtual and in-person events.”

The announcement has provided many seniors with a sense of relief, according to Washougal High paraeducator and senior class advisor Melissa Tauialo.

“The toughest struggle for the students the last two months has been the uncertainty of graduation activities,” Tauialo said. “The one thing that they all told me over and over again was that even if they had to wait, they wanted to graduate together. With the announcement of the Aug. 8 date of an in-person graduation, a lot of the feelings of uncertainty, sadness and resignation have been alleviated. I am excited that they will get to share graduation with their families far and wide with the virtual graduation on June 6 and with each other on Aug. 8.”

The virtual ceremony will include speeches by Templeton, Gomez-Clark, the senior class’ valedictorian and salutatorian, and members of the school’s Associated Student Body and senior class leadership team — who will be speaking from the Washougal High auditorium.

“June 6 was the originally scheduled date for graduation, and the seniors have had that day in their minds for the entire school year,” Templeton said. “To have that day come and go without some sort of public recognition seemed flat to me, so I’m glad that we’re able to provide that.

One of the benefits of doing a livestream is that it will have a feeling of ‘happening now.’ The students will feel that they’re part of an actual ceremony and ‘in the moment’ instead of watching something pre-recorded.”

The ceremony will be available for students and families to watch live on the high school’s YouTube page, where it will be archived for future viewing.

“We will be working closely with a reputable vendor to provide a professional, authentic and meaningful event for our Panthers,” Gomez-Clark wrote.

Students will be invited to submit a photograph while wearing their cap and gown, along with a written message to thank loved ones and offer congratulations to friends, Gomez-Clark said.

District leaders are ‘optimistic’ state will allow large gatherings in August

Washougal school leaders don’t have a lot of firm details about the in-person ceremony at this point, other than the fact that it will most likely be held in the evening hours, and adjustments may have to be made based on distancing protocols and restrictions in place at the time.

Templeton said she hopes Washington state will be in the third or fourth phase of Gov. Jay Inslee’s four-phase reopening plan by August. The third phase restricts gatherings to 50 or fewer people while the fourth phase removes all restrictions for public assemblies.

The governor has said he hopes to move the state into Phase 2 on June 1, and that there will be at least three weeks between each new phase of the state’s reopening.

“We’re just guessing,” Templeton said, “but we’re optimistic by that point in the reopening plan that students can get together for some sort of event. We may have to limit the number of (attendees), or find ways for them to spread out. We may have to position the stage in a different location, or put up a monitor outside the stadium for crowd overflow. We’ll see what we need to get this accomplished.”

If the district is not allowed to gather in person by early August, Templeton said district leaders would reach out to students and families to see how they might like to proceed.

“We’re hoping that’s not going to be the case, and that we can move forward with our plan,” Templeton said. “We want to get something done before the (seniors) leave town for their post-graduation commitments.”

Tauialo praised the district’s decisions surrounding the graduation ceremonies.

“Having known a lot of these students since elementary school, I am thankful that the district took the time to plan thoughtfully and safely,” she said. “The school administration has made sure that every milestone the seniors have looked forward to is met. It may not be the way they had always envisioned, but it is going to happen. The (Washougal High) class of 2020 is determined, driven and strong-willed, and overcoming this obstacle will not be a setback for them; instead, it will show them how strong they are.”