No one was standing in line at Arlington High School on Sunday, decked out in their caps and gowns, waiting to cross a stage. That may happen later in July.
Instead, families were gathered around computers, waiting to load and click the link to watch the virtual graduation of the AHS Class of 2020.
The students' years in high school took an unexpected turn in March when the coronavirus caused schools across the country to change plans and ways of studying.
The change was recognized throughout the speeches recorded for graduation by the class president, salutatorian, and valedictorian.
“Welcome to the first and hopefully only virtual graduation,” class president Mary Helms said. “I would like to thank you all for being here today even if we can't meet in person. As we were starting our last quarter, we walked out on what would be the longest senior skip day ever not knowing that we wouldn't be able to come back. We wish we could walk these halls just one more time.”
Principal Aaron Pfingsten recognized retiring staff and long-serving members, including physical education teacher Steve Johnson, who retires this year after 38 years; director of food services Julie French, 30 years; speech pathologist Deb Walling, 20 years; and teacher Deb Washburn, vocal music teacher Burina Crosland, preschool teacher Gail Barth and paraprofessional Merrit Gilmore, 15 years respectively.
“All of these staff members have dedicated their lives to the greater cause of impacting the youth of Arlington,” Pfingsten said. “Your dedication to the students, to the staff and to the community are appreciated.”
Pfingsten said students were admitted to 44 colleges in 17 states and will attend 19 colleges in eight states. Scholarships were offered to 68 percent of the class of more than $924,000 in scholarships and grants, with $415,000 being accepted for the 2020-21 school year. The scholarships and grants are renewable for more than $1.5 million over a four-year period, Pfingsten said.
The top 10 percent of the graduating class included Lily Hilgenkamp, valedictorian; Madison Brennfoerder, salutatorian; Chloe Hoffschneider, Noah Hoffschneider; Tanner Pittman; and Jaidyn Spoon.
“High school is scary and we still all managed to get through all the pop quizzes, awkward acne phases, the flood of 2019 and even a global pandemic,” Brennfoerder said in her speech. “We have learned so much from our high school teachers these past four years. Mr. Wiese taught us about the world outside Arlington. Maybe after this pandemic we will actually get to go visit it.”
Hilgenkamp recognized the unexpected ending to the senior year.
"I know that it's been disappointing and it's unfortunate that a world pandemic interrupted what some people claim is supposed to be the best years of our lives,” she said. “But time will go on and things will get better.”
She said people have a choice of whether dark patches break them down or make them more resilient.
“If we can handle getting through a pandemic our senior year, we can handle difficult tests in college, unruly colleagues and other difficult situations,” she said. “We've got this. We were all made for a purpose and we can do great things. Now is our time for joy.”
Supt. Dawn Lewis said she wasn’t sure if she had any words of wisdom to offer the senior class.
"For you see, wisdom is gained through experience and I have never experienced anything like this before. We have never rescheduled or canceled a graduation ceremony in my 21 years in education nor during the previous 10 years of the administrators who have come before me,” she said. “We haven't had to recreate education or rethink how we teach and learn to the extent that we have in the past nine weeks. We have never closed our doors to students. What wisdom I have been able to pull from this experience is the value of human connection. I hope your takeaway from this time of eLearning, social distancing and isolation will cause you to value your friendships more deeply and reminds you to appreciate simple actions like hugs and handshakes.”
She encouraged the seniors to find way to see the positive in all situations.
“I hope to see you all in person on July 19 so we can celebrate this moment one more time together,” Lewis said.
After graduation, seniors gathered at the Two Rivers Sports Complex where they decorated their cars with messages of congratulations for the Class of 2020. They lined up, followed an Arlington Volunteer Fire Department rescue vehicle and paraded through the town as onlookers clapped and hollered their congratulations. They made two loops around town before being led past the house of Dave and Jamie Smith for a special treat of music and cheer from their neighborhood. A recording of “Pomp and Circumstance” played over their loudspeakers.
After the parade, seniors gathered back at AHS on the football field for pictures and releasing balloons.