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A large portion of members of the Wilkes County high school class of 2020 participated in unique graduation ceremonies spaced out over Thursday and Friday of last week and Monday and Tuesday of this week in gyms at each school.

Each graduating senior had the opportunity to sign up for 10-minute time slots during the four days in which the student walked across a traditional stage and accepted a diploma from the principal or other school official, one-by-one. Time for photos was allowed.

Each student was allowed up to eight guests at his or her ceremony to maintain Gov. Roy Cooper’s limit of 10 people per indoor gathering to help prevent spreading COVID-19. Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd said facial coverings and social distancing were mandatory.

Byrd said he heard positive comments about the one-by-one graduation ceremonies and indicated that he was pleased with the level of participation. Many who participated said they appreciated the personal nature of the events.

Each ceremony was videotaped and will be compiled with others for separate videos for each high school. These will be shared with students. Speeches by student representatives, school board members and district and school administrators were included, as well as a traditional roll call of graduating seniors.

Dr. Chad Mann, East Wilkes High principal, said individual graduation ceremonies at East were a huge success with a great turnout, with 85% of seniors participating. Mann said 102 ceremonies for the same number of seniors were held over three of the four days. Another 18 students opted to simply come by the school and pick up their diplomas.

“The East High staff loved every minute of these celebrations. Our families were very appreciative of the opportunity to celebrate their students. We extended our day to accommodate our families that worked late. It was a pleasure to celebrate this class." Mann said the team effort for the graduation ceremonies at East Wilkes was led by Erica Kennedy, bookkeeper at the school. 

Wilkes Early College High School Principal Michelle Shepherd said about 80% of the 44 graduating seniors at WECHS participated in ceremonies held Monday and Tuesday in Bumgarner Gym on the Wilkes Community College campus, where the high school has its facilities. Shepherd said some students delayed military enlistment and other plans to participate.

Students entered Bumgarner Gym one by one, with his or her family members waiting inside. As Shepherd handed out diplomas, she shared brief personal comments reflecting time spent with students. She did an elbow bump instead of a hug with each. In a lobby outside the gym, a video with comments of teachers and staff at the school played for students and their families as they awaited their turns. Shepherd was assisted by Leah Watkins, bookkeeper at the school.

West Wilkes High School Principal Amanda Pruitt said 109 graduating seniors at West participated in the ceremonies, which is nearly 80% of this year's graduating class of about 140. 

“I have truly enjoyed getting to see our seniors take their moment in the spotlight as they walk across the stage in a very personalized ceremony with their close friends and family members," said Pruitt.

"Although things have been a bit different this year, we have all been reminded to focus on the things that have been given to us and we have learned to take a non-traditional situation and turn it into something really special,” she added.

Wilkes Central High School Principal Dion Stocks said 138 out of 198 seniors (70%) opted to participate in the individual ceremonies at his school.

"It was a great opportunity to celebrate with families and to see the smiles on each graduate's face," said Stocks. "Our staff did an outstanding job of preparing and providing a personal moment for each graduate. We had several families mention how much they enjoyed the personal aspect of the ceremony and we are happy to have provided this important milestone for so many of the class of 2020." 
At North Wilkes High School, Principal David Johnson said 101 of nearly 160 graduating seniors (63%) participated in the ceremonies. He said providing small family-focused ceremonies for graduates helped end the 2020 academic year on a positive note for the seniors.
Johnson said it's been wonderful seeing the seniors and their families. "I am so glad we were able to provide these graduation events. Now, our graduates are ready to move on to their next endeavors. I wish them all well and hope they find happiness along their journey."

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