Graduations, pandemic style: ‘We’ve gone through a lot, more than most graduating classes’

After challenging year, Camas High and Hayes Freedom seniors celebrate graduation with in-person ceremonies at Doc Harris Stadium

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Hayes Freedom High School seniors from the class of 2021, including Jazmyn Dunn, 17 (right), walk toward their high school graduation ceremony on Saturday, June 12, 2021, at Doc Harris Stadium in Camas. (Kelly Moyer/Post-Record)

One year after the COVID-19 pandemic forced local school districts to reimagine high school graduation ceremonies, seniors from Camas, Hayes Freedom and Washougal high schools’ class of 2021 gathered for in-person commencement ceremonies.

Camas High seniors graduated at Doc Harris Stadium on Friday, June 11, while seniors from Hayes Freedom and Washougal High graduated at Doc Harris (Hayes) and Fishback (Washougal) stadiums on Saturday, June 12.

Educators, principals and student speakers focused on the hope and joy of graduation day, without glossing over the fact that the pandemic had greatly impacted students from the class of 2021 — who were still in the thick of their junior year when Washington schools went into remote-learning mode in March 2020 and who spent the majority of their senior year going to school over a computer.

“Your high school experience was definitely different, but really it was different the moment you chose to be a Renegade,” Hayes Freedom High School Principal Amy Holmes told her class of 2021 seniors during their graduation ceremony on June 12. “With your wise choice, you were able to have a voice, and you were listened to, cared for and supported … instead of having you fill in blanks on a worksheet, we created an environment and opportunities to discuss and wrestle with concepts and new, and sometimes controversial ideas.”

Holmes said the months of remote learning were hard for students and educators at Hayes Freedom, a high school named for Camas native and Earth Day founder Denis Hayes that offers students an alternative to the large, comprehensive high school environment found at Camas High.

“There are people who want to be online teachers,” Holmes said. “That’s not us.”

Hayes Freedom educators tried to teach seniors to think for themselves and be able to tackle anything thrown at them, Holmes said.

“You are ready to take on the life before you,” she said, telling the graduating seniors gathered at Doc Harris in their Hayes Freedom Renegade green robes and caps to not be afraid to try new things in life.

“Try even when you are afraid. You might fail. Get up and try again, because that is where you will learn the most about yourself and those around you,” Holmes said. “Be kind. Be proud. Be fearless.”

Rebecca Kullberg, Hayes Freedom’s 2020-21 Associated Student Body (ASB) president, carried that mess,age in her speech to her peers.

“We’ve gone through a lot, more than most graduating classes, more than most teenagers should be expected to,” Kullberg said “This past year has been difficult, and that’s an understatement — with COVID-19, societal unrest and the mental and physical violence happening both here in the U.S. and all over the world, we have gone through and seen far more than we should have ever been made to handle.”

Far too often, Kullberg said, she and her peers had watched and heard “bad thing after bad thing” happening in real time.

“We’ve constantly seen death, injustice, violence and the promise of an uncertain future,” Kullberg said, adding that the past year “has brought out both the best and worst in people.”

“We have seen people who have stepped up to the challenges presented as well as those who have acted childishly or worse.”

Kullberg spoke to how the past year has impacted so many of her peers.

“Some of us struggled with online school; others with mental health issues (due to) everything going on; and some of us because of the death of a loved one because of COVID,” she said. “It has been hard.”

But Kullberg left her peers and the community gathered at Doc Harris Stadium with a message of strength and hope for the future.

“We are entering the rest of our lives armed with knowledge, empathy, a sense of justice and a will to create the future we want — the future we deserve. And we have already shown we have the willingness, the creativity and the determination to fight for it,” Kullberg said.

“Our class has weathered a storm far greater than what most classes before us have,” she added. “In fact, we are still weathering it, but we have navigated far better than anyone expected, and we continue to navigate the best we can.”

Teacher tells Camas grads: ‘You are capable of so much’

Though press was unable to attend the Camas High School graduation in person due to COVID-19 safety restrictions on crowd size, the school offered a livestream of the commencement ceremony on its YouTube channel.

The Camas High graduation kicked off at 7 p.m. Friday, June 11, at Doc Harris Stadium. Though the crowd was smaller than previous years’ graduations and everyone was wearing a face covering to protect themselves and others from the airborne SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, the graduation ceremony was, in many ways, a return to a more “normal” time.

Camas High band and choir students entertained the crowd as families filed into the stadium and before Camas High 2020-21 senior class president Mark Harimoto took the stage to speak to his peers.

“The class of 2021 will be the class that will be remembered,” Harimoto said. “We went through COVID and survived … we are the class that went through four different (school) schedules; state championships in football, track and field, swimming, cross country and gymnastics; school threats and lockdowns. We were the class that didn’t have a prom our junior or senior year. They will remember the class of 2021.”

Other speakers noted the class of 2021’s academic achievements: including seniors who earned their high school diploma and associate’s degree this year and the 120 seniors — out of a class of about 550 students — whose grades were in the top 10 percent of all Washington state seniors, earning them the title of Washington State Scholar.

The high school’s “Teacher of the Year,” Ethan Chessin, reflected on a cross-country bicycle trip he embarked on when he was just a little older than the seniors at the Friday evening graduation ceremony.

“Long-distance biking is kind of like high school,” Chessin said. “You have to make all of these small decisions, and you are capable of so much when you take it one step at a time.”

Chessin noted that, sometimes, the people who are closest to us are the ones who can help us see how much we’ve changed and grown.

“You may be done with high school, but you aren’t done changing,” Chessin told the seniors. “My wish for you is that you will be surrounded by coworkers, family and friends who can help you reflect (on how you’ve changed).”

But, Chessin said, he also hoped the teens would learn how to rely on themselves in those times when family, friends and coworkers were not there — during those times when they felt alone.

“The society we live in is built on the work that you do, the work we all do,” Chessin said. “Think about the effort you put into the world. And ask yourself: What are we building with all your labor? Then imagine how we can make the world a (better) place.”

Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell, who will leave Camas to become the superintendent of Vancouver Public Schools in July, spoke at the Camas and Hayes Freedom graduations last weekend, and told the class of 2021 graduates how proud he and other district staff were of their perseverance and achievements throughout the past year.

“Each of you has a unique story,” Snell told the Camas High graduates on Friday. “You have stories of persistence, caring, seeing the world with optimism and hope. Stories of great joy. Stories that inspire us and give us great hope for the future. Thank you for sharing these first few chapters of your story with us — our best to you as you write the rest of your story.”