Rockingham Schools Hold Weekend-Long, Drive-In Commencements

Jun 7, 2020

Not all attendees kept a safe physical distance to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. Superintendent Oskar Scheikl said some parents asked him to ignore Governor Northam's social restrictions and hold regular commencement ceremonies, even though the virus is still spreading.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

It’s graduation season – but with most of Virginia in just phase two of reopening, schools are finding alternative ways to celebrate their graduating seniors. Rockingham County Public Schools held their ceremonies at the fairground this weekend, drive-in style. WMRA’s Randi B. Hagi reports.

BRANDY STRICKLER, assistant principal of East Rockingham High School: It is my honor to present to you the class of 2020! [cars honking, Strickler reading out names]

About 900 Rockingham County students graduated over the last two days at the county fairground, their loved ones clustered inside and around cars, cheering and honking for the graduates of Broadway High School, East Rockingham, Spotswood, Turner Ashby, and Massanutten Technical Center. Christian Peterson, like many of his classmates at East Rock, kept the vibe upbeat.

Christian Peterson graduated from East Rockingham High.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

CHRISTIAN PETERSON: Growing up, Disney Pixar’s Cars was always my favorite movie. So this graduation is a surreal experience for me. Wow. We really made it. As the great musician and philosopher Drake once said, the class of 2020 truly started from the bottom. Now the whole team’s here.

It was a festive scene on Saturday evening: a sea of cars bearing congratulatory banners, balloons, and the occasional giant cutout of their graduate’s face. Despite initially being asked to remain in their vehicles, students milled around taking photos with friends and loved ones, or perched on top of their cars, catching video clips of their friends crossing the distant stage.

[ambi of national anthem]

Superintendent Oskar Scheikl said parents were pleasantly surprised with the outcome.

County School Superintendent Oskar Scheikl (left) talks with Governor Ralph Northam at an education conference in 2019.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

OSKAR SCHEIKL: There are very few school divisions that attempted to have all the students who are graduating together … Being at the fairgrounds makes it even more special. You know, there’s such a strong connection in this community to the fair, and working with the fair and just using that space, it was really, really amazing experience for me. Obviously everybody wanted to have the traditional ceremony but when that’s not possible, then to me this was a really good alternative.

The school division asked students to vote on what type of alternative ceremony they’d prefer: a three-day event where they’d each attend separately, or a joint, socially-distanced gathering. They chose the latter.

Emily Wilie (left) and fellow East Rock grad Kara Boyers.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

EMILY WILIE: It’s obviously a little bit disappointing, but I’m just glad I get to do it.

East Rockingham student Emily Wilie is headed to Bridgewater College to study physical therapy. Her friend Kara Boyers is going to VCU for art.

KARA BOYERS: Yeah I’m glad they did something. I’ve heard other schools have not had the opportunity to even hold a celebration, so that’s exciting that we get to do something.

Attention to detail was crucial in pulling off the event in this new format. Scheikl lauded assistant superintendent Doug Alderfer for his work on logistics, including calling in the experts as needed.

SCHEIKL: We hired professionals even for the little things, like parking. We used the same company that does the parking for the fair. We hired a professional company to do the audio, the web streaming.

Scheikl said that some parents had called for the school division to ignore Governor Northam’s orders and just hold a traditional ceremony.

East Rock slass secretary Makayla Jones addressed the crowd, most of them in cars.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

SCHEIKL: I think the challenge was to really get the community to buy into a different format. Students have this vision of what graduation is like … We tried to make it as special as we could even though it wasn’t exactly, you know, the ideal scenario … These students, as much as it was different and maybe not what they wanted, they will be that one class that can tell their children and grandchildren that their graduation was truly unique.

Class secretary Makayla Jones already has a sense of that.

MAKAYLA JONES: I hope each of you enter the next chapter of your life proud of all your achievements, and knowing, decades from now, you will look back to know we will not be defined by what we lost during this virus, but how we’ve become strong young adults to remake the world … so go explore and never look back. Thank you. [cheers, honks]