Class of 2020 gets one-of-a-kind sendoff amid COVID-19 restrictions (with video, photo gallery)
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The end of Delaney Johnston’s senior year at Steamboat Springs High School came with more surprises than she ever could have imagined.
As schools shuttered their doors under the COVID-19 pandemic, the lifelong Steamboat student held out hope the situation would improve and she could return to her usual routine. Then in April, news broke that prom would be canceled due to state health orders.
Days later, Gov. Jared Polis announced the closure of schools for the rest of the academic year, which also put an end to any hope of a normal graduation ceremony, something Johnston had been looking forward to as the culmination of her years of hard work.
“At first, I felt a lot of anger and disappointment about everything,” she said. “Everyone imagines walking across the stage. My friends and I were really excited about our graduation party.”
While she considers herself a good student who values her education and genuinely enjoys school, Johnston often wondered why she should put any effort into the dwindling months of course work. She already had been accepted to college and, without the social aspect of seeing friends and her favorite teachers in class, felt her motivation tanking.
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“It was senioritis times 10,” Johnston said.
But as she prepared to don her cap and gown to attend a special graduation ceremony at Steamboat Resort on Friday, she began to see the positives in the situation, however unusual. The efforts of the city, resort, law enforcement and local businesses to organize a ceremony and parade renewed that sense of accomplishment for Johnston. She started to feel graduation was not canceled, just revamped.
“I think it’s cool we get to do something different,” Johnston said. “It’s something we will all share for the rest of our lives.”
Dealing with disruptions
Johnston is one of many high school seniors in Routt County who have been trying to make the most of the limitations imposed by COVID-19. Her family had planned a reunion for a graduation party but had to cancel. Instead, Johnston will celebrate with a small gathering in her backyard with her immediate family, including her parents, grandparents and boyfriend.
Madison Lee has used the weeks of quarantine to spend more time with family and focus on her music. A member of the Steamboat Springs High School’s choir and orchestra, she gritted her teeth as the spring concert, for which she had been preparing for months, would not see a live audience.
But all was not lost. Students took the creative approach of organizing a virtual concert. Each performer, playing or singing along to a metronome, submitted an audio recording of the repertoire. They then compiled all of the recordings into a cohesive ensemble.
It was not the finale Lee expected, but she appreciated the chance to showcase her work.
“It’s a great feeling to be able to perform,” she said.
Axel Rios also had a chance in the spotlight gone dark when the musical for which he had been rehearsing, “High School Musical,” was called off weeks before the premiere. His character was Mongo, one of the skater dudes.
Rios moved to Steamboat from Mexico in eighth grade. It took him several years to develop proficiency in English, but once he became fluent, Rios immediately took to performing. He acted in his first-ever production in the fall.
Seniors’ disappointment over the end to their high school years was not lost on the Steamboat community. The resort sprang to action, organizing a drive-in style ceremony at the Meadows Parking Lot with the ski runs on Mount Werner, now green with grass, in clear view.
Students and their families decorated their vehicles with balloons, window chalk and banners.
Sophie Leeson waved a red Steamboat Sailors flag she attached to a ski pole.
Julia McCarthy sat in a sleek, black convertible her family had rented just for the occasion.
“You have to make the best of the worst situation,” said McCarthy’s mom, Valerie.
Josh Bush took a more retro route, rolling up in his grandfather’s 1929 Model A Roadster.
Many students wore their graduation caps and gowns. Others, free of the usual protocols, opted for more personalized styles. Lee, a Hawaiian native, adorned herself in floral lei to honor a family tradition.
While condolences peppered the speeches during the ceremony, Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. President and Chief Operating Officer Rob Perlman offered an optimistic observation. This would be a day to remember, an occasion that no previous graduating class could boast in stories of their high school years.
“I would argue that this is a cooler celebration than being on the high school field,” he said to the applause of car horns.
After Perlman’s speech, a helicopter with Classic Air Medical swooped over the crowd and circled the parking lot.
Olympian and two-time world champion snowboarder Mick Dierdorff, who gave one of two speeches during the ceremony, challenged members the Class of 2020 to use the obstacles of the novel coronavirus pandemic to grow their resolve and emerge stronger on the other side.
“I hope that after this, you can feel resilient and confident that you can handle whatever life hands your way,” he said.
High school graduate Liam Hahn, who now attends Middlebury College in Vermont, gave the second speech. He described the ways in which Steamboat prepares its youth for the joys and challenges of life.
“When you leave this valley and head off into the real world, you will begin to see just how well adjusted you are solely because you had the privilege of growing up in this amazing place,” Hahn said before breaking into a brief rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.”
Residents’ profound appreciation for their community was on full display as the seniors paraded in their vehicles through the city. People lined Lincoln Avenue with more signs and banners, cheering on the graduating class.
Plans for the future
With high school in the rearview mirror, seniors have their eyes on the weeks and months ahead. Many plans, such as vacations and college, are in flux as the country continues to grapple with the pandemic.
Rios plans to spend the summer working for his uncle’s business in Steamboat. Come fall, conditions allowing, he wants to travel. Spain is at the top of his list, particularly the city of Madrid, which entices him for its food and culture. He does not feel in any rush to dive into college or a career until he sees more of the world and what it has to offer.
“That way I can know myself better and know what I want,” Rios said.
Others, like Soroco High School senior Tristan Singer, have committed to schools and can take courses in the fall. Singer plans to study diesel technology at WyoTech in Laramie.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment my whole life,” he said of graduating.
Johnston, who got into Connecticut College on the East Coast, has not yet decided if she will attend this year. The school has not announced if classes will be in person or online but is giving the option for students to defer their acceptance until the following academic year.
An avid performer, Johnston planned to study dance and psychology. The idea of trying to learn dance routines online seems silly to her, so she is weighing the idea of taking a gap year if classes go virtual.
In that time, Johnston could continue to develop her performing skills and find opportunities to choreograph new dances. She also wants to learn cello. The recent disruptions have shown her how valuable a role the arts play in her life, both as a potential career and as personal solace.
As Johnston said, “I’m super excited to see what this next year holds — even if it’s not what I imagined it to be.”
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