Portland High School seniors finally received their diplomas on Saturday, June 27 after being out of school for more than two months. SUBMITTED

Around 2,000 seniors from 11 Sumner County high schools celebrated commencement exercises two weekends ago.

The graduations were held six weeks later than normal and capped off an historic school year in which students left for spring break on March 13 and never returned to their physical classrooms due to a global coronavirus pandemic.

The new coronavirus – or COVID-19 – continued to be a key factor at local graduations where social distancing guidelines limited the number of friends and family members allowed to attend. Still, when so many school districts have opted to cancel graduations or hold drive-by ceremonies, most seemed thankful for the modified ceremonies in Sumner County.

Schools limited the number to three or four guests per graduate and encouraged social distancing by marking off certain areas of seating or placing chairs farther apart than normal. They also made the use of masks optional. Most of the schools made the ceremony available online as well.

Despite the changes, Amanda Gregory, whose daughter Emma was one of the graduating seniors, said it was still an event to remember for everyone.

“We have a large family that supports its own, so it was bittersweet to be able to watch Emma sing the National Anthem and cross the stage without all of them there,” Gregory said. “However, I am so thankful for all the provisions that were made so our kids could have an in-person graduation.”

Schools who used the Long Hollow Baptist church facility had been initially told that due to social distancing and the capacity of the church’s buildings, seniors would graduate in a separate room from parents. After receiving feedback from parents about the proposed plan, Director of Schools Del Phillips met with church staff to try to figure out a compromise.

Students were distanced apart in one building while spectators – three per family – gathered in the sanctuary. Speakers addressed the crowd in the same room as the parents while seniors watched on a live feed. Students filed in one by one into the sanctuary to receive their diplomas, and then headed back to the other room.

“I think they enjoyed being able to share this last event as PHS Panthers with each other,” Gregory said. “We all definitely walked away from this chapter knowing that our kids have been thought about and loved during the uncertainty of COVID 19.”

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