CLIFTON PARK – More than 750 Shenendehowa High School seniors donned their respective green or white caps and gowns and strode across a stage to be handed their diploma Thursday on the Shenendehowa Central School District campus.
This year’s graduation, traditionally held at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga, was relocated to outside of the High School East building, and like so many times before for students, they were dropped off and picked up by their parents.
The COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing regulations from the governor made a mass seating of the class and presentation at the outdoor amphitheater at SPAC impossible.
Instead, a caravan of parents arrived at the Clifton Park campus at a designated time, parked in a reserved parking lot and space before heading to the roundabout in front of High School East.
With Shenendehowa provided face masks on, the seniors were dropped off, made their way toward the makeshift stage, had their portrait taken and then walked across the stage to be handed their diploma from school Superintendent Dr. Oliver Robinson.
Then they returned to their vehicle as a Shenendehowa graduate.
“This is pretty cool, I'm not going to lie,” Isabella Silaika of Rexford said while standing in line. “You're obviously going to miss [SPAC} because everyone else gets to do it, but this is a lot cooler because no one else gets to do it.”
Silaika has the pleasure or pain of watching her sisters, Karen and Vicky, have their commencement at SPAC.
“At SPAC it's very crowded, very hot,” Silaika said. “Now you get to stop by, do your part and go home. You don't have to wait for the whole 756 people.”
It was not easy.
“The challenge was because of all the restrictions and not knowing what we are allowed to do or the impact of the virus,” Robinson said. “We knew we wanted to do something special.”
It was during the remote learning spring session that Robinson had his vision.
“I was driving through campus one afternoon, it was kind of surreal that there was no one here,” Robinson said. “We're going to do it right here on campus. I shared a thought with Ron [Agostinio] and his team and they added a bunch of details to it.”
Those details included the input of High School East Associate Principal Stephen Smith.
“We looked at the groupings of kids, 800 kids, break it up into 200, we have five lots, use all the lots,” Smith said. “Then we did simulations to run and see how long it would run ... one minute, 40 seconds, 30 seconds.”
The average was 25 seconds per student in the graduation queue and the event finished one hour earlier than expected Thursday afternoon.
“The only thing some parents have said was they wish they could have brought two cars ... It wouldn't have worked,” Smith said.
According to Smith, each Shenendehowa administrative staff member was on hand for at least one of the four shifts and more than 230 teachers volunteered to see the class of 2020 off.
For many graduates, wearing their cap, gown and receiving their diploma is what makes a graduation.
“I don't really know how to react because this has never happened before, but I think it's pretty cool that they managed to do this with the situation that is going on with the virus,” senior Lucas Seyoum of Clifton Park said. “I was watching at home too; it looks cool to see your friends graduate.”
Some graduates expect commencements to return to SPAC.
“I think going back to SPAC is more celebratory," Bryan Spence of Clifton Park said.
The final product surprised some Shen seniors.
“I didn't expect anything like this,” Deyanara Spencer of Clifton Park said. “I thought we would wait until July or August like everybody else, but I think they did a really good job putting it together.
“I was glad to see everybody that I wanted to see. Everybody showed up, it was nice to see everybody even though you can't touch or shake hands.”
While Robinson expects to return to SPAC next year, he said the live-streaming of the graduation was a new wrinkle the district hopes to add to future commencements.
“This is slightly more expensive, but when you think about the fact there are some things we didn't spend money on as a result of certain things not happening,” Robinson said. “When I think about costs I think about it from an investment. This was more than a worthwhile investment for the 756 kids who had that moment, that 10 second moment on that stage that they deserve after 13 years.
“That's priceless. We can't put enough money on that experience for those kids. If the situation called for us to do it again, we would do it a thousand times again.”
Reach Stan Hudy at [email protected] or @StanHudy on Twitter.