MATTOON — Students at Mattoon High School have not been able to attend classes on campus since mid-March due statewide public health precautions prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nevertheless, Mattoon seniors have been able to put on their caps and gowns and take part in graduation ceremonies at the high school, albeit one graduate at a time accompanied by no more than five well-wishers. The school kicked off a series of five-minute personalized graduation ceremonies for its 234 seniors on Saturday and is set to continue holding these ceremonies through Wednesday.
"It feels really good. It's nice to have some sort of graduation, even if it's really small like this," said senior Kambelle Ashmore.
Each graduate gets to walk across the stage in the high school's main gym as their name is called, with the gym being nearly empty instead of filled with well-wishers like a traditional ceremony.
Another difference is that the personalized ceremony gives each graduate the opportunity to receive their diploma from a family member on stage. For example, Ashmore received her diploma from her mother, Melissa.
Senior Lexie Decker said she is glad that she and her classmates got to have graduation ceremonies and that her grandmother, Gala, got to hand the diploma to her.
"It was more personal having family members involved with the graduation process," Gala Decker said.
Senior Savannah Bernobich said she appreciated being able to have some of her family members in attendance at a graduation ceremony and have her father, Reno, hand her the diploma.
"You are never going to forget it. That's for sure," Reno Bernobich said of the personalized event.
Senior Kaiya Bryson said she was not sure what to think of this nontraditional ceremony at first, but reflected afterwards that it was a nice experience still getting to have a small group of family and friends out there cheering for her in the gym. She received her diploma from her mother, Tina.
Bryson said there was not a big crowd in attendance like there usually is every year, but the small ceremony was something that was special to her.
"It was kind of unconventional, but I am unconventional as well," Bryson said.
Senior Hallie Niemerg said the absence of a crowd kept her from being as nervous when her name was called and she walked across the stage, where her mother, Julie, handed out the diploma.
"It was neat to be part of the experience," Julie Niemerg said. She added, "There are a lot of kids (in Illinois) who are graduating without getting any ceremony."
Senior Gavin Wright said with everything that is going on with COVID-19 and public safety requirements, it was nice that the high school was still able to let each graduate bring five well-wishers with them. Wright, whose mother, Lori, presented him with the diploma, said he appreciated the free graduation photo that each senior received and the personal nature of each ceremony.
"It's a lot more about the individual than the event," Wright said.
Seniors and their families are also invited to ride in their personal vehicles during a Class of 2020 Graduation Parade at 6 p.m. Friday on Broadway Avenue from the Cross County Mall to 16th Street downtown. Community members are invited to cheer on the graduates at Peterson Park and other points along the route while maintaining social distance.
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