The directions given to seniors were simple: “Take your mask off, hide it behind your diploma and walk when your name is called.”
High school seniors throughout Federal Way Public Schools participated in pandemic-friendly graduation walk recordings on May 20.
The graduation ceremonies will be broadcast June 13 via Facebook, YouTube and on local Channel 21.
In lieu of the traditional ceremony in which hundreds of families, friends and staff members gather to celebrate accomplishments of their graduate, FWPS organized an innovative way to honor seniors while also following social distancing guidelines.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students throughout the state unknowingly attended their final day of the school year on March 13 as Gov. Jay Inslee canceled the remainder of in-person academics.
While FWPS decided to cancel in-person graduation ceremonies, the sense of accomplishment and celebration of students’ final milestone couldn’t be stopped.
Last Wednesday, seniors — dressed in cap and gowns — along with their loved ones arrived at their school sites. Family members and friends remained in their vehicles, snapping photos, honking car horns and cheering for their graduate.
Students received their diploma cover, with the official certificate to be mailed later, and followed directions by on-site videographers who were recording each graduate’s walk, similar to if they were walking across a stage for an in-person ceremony.
“It feels good, but it is a little different,” said Todd Beamer High School graduate Thomas Doyle. “You can’t really expect more because of the situation we’re in right now. Other than that, it still feels like a normal graduation. I feel good. It’s still the next step.”
Doyle played football for the Titans and was coming up on his final track and field season this spring. He throws discus and javelin — and holds sixth place in Todd Beamer’s all-time records with a 129’11 javelin throw during the 2019 season.
Doyle said he wished he had put more dedication into his sports when he had the chance.
“I was pretty excited. It was my last sport and I was looking forward to trying and doing my best,” he said. “A lot of other people are in the same situation as us, and I’m just being as positive as I can about it right now.”
Rather than looking at the downside, Doyle said he’s focusing on the future. He plans to attend the University of Washington in Seattle next fall to study business management.
In previous years, graduation ceremonies for Federal Way high schools took place at the Tacoma Dome. This year, the in-person celebrations were scheduled for June 8-9 at the accesso ShoWare Center in Kent.
“It’s very innovative,” said senior Brycen Dillworth of the district’s new graduation plans. “It’s a really good experience for us to have the illusion that we’re walking even though we don’t have the opportunity to actually walk at [graduation] the Tacoma Dome with all of our peers.”
Dillworth is one of the best athletes to ever compete as a Todd Beamer Titan, his past coaches have said. Dillworth, a three-sport athlete and ASB vice president, earned the title of Most Valuable Player for the North Puget Sound League Olympic Division for his 2019-2020 basketball season. Dillworth, a point guard for the boys team, led the league in scoring and steals, and stood out among other players in free throw attempts and rebounds.
“It sucked, it definitely sucked,” Dillworth said of the lost spring season. Dillworth was eager to cap off his famed career at Todd Beamer by making it to state for track in sprint relays and the triple jump.
Next year, Dillworth will be playing basketball at Everett Community College.
“This is definitely probably the most memorable part of my high school career,” Dillworth said. “There’s nothing that could beat this because I’m going to remember this forever as the pandemic graduating class.”
Todd Beamer senior Elyse Erickson, a member of the National Honor Society, plans to attend Whitworth University in the fall with hopes of becoming a high school teacher one day. She said the incoming college freshman class will have this shared experience to bring with them and bond over.
“Initially it was kind of a disappointment to know everything was getting canceled,” Erickson said. “But I really appreciate everything that’s been made up to celebrate us and all of our accomplishments throughout high school. …I think most of all it taught me how much I value my friends and teachers and everyone who’s been along with me throughout this entire journey.”
Graduation didn’t feel real, said Decatur High School senior Jenna Bettge.
“It was so quick, like ‘oh wait we just graduated,’” she said. “If someone told me that’s how we were going to graduate this year, I wouldn’t have believed them.”
Because of social distancing recommendations, Bettge said she isn’t able to celebrate her graduation with family outside of her house. Bettge, a star player on the Gators’ softball team, said she learned how much everyone took pre-pandemic life for granted — going to class, seeing live music, or even softball games.
When quarantine began in early spring and the rumors of closing schools began to circle, Bettge said many students were in the mindset of returning to school in late April.
“If I had known that was going to be our last practice, I would’ve said goodbye to the freshmen and the girls I’ve played with my whole life,” she said of her teammates.
“It was shocking to all of us because I know for a fact we were going to have a really good team this year,” she said. “The fact that it was taken away, that’s the heartbreaking part.”
Next year, Bettge will play softball at Skagit Valley College.
Despite the stolen memories and uncertainty of the future, Bettge said she knows what to do on the other side of the pandemic.
“I’ll play and do everything like it’s my last,” she said.
From the district
FWPS estimates there are 1,655 candidates for graduation for the Class of 2020, according to the district.
“One of the many unfortunate impacts of school closure has been the abrupt disruption of the rituals and ceremonies for our seniors,” said Superintendent Dr. Tammy Campbell.
FWPS has spent countless hours re-imagining how to honor this year’s seniors within the boundaries of the Department of Health’s guidelines and the governor’s guidance on phased openings, she said.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our scholars, staff and families in how we’ve been able to meet this moment to create something special for the Class of 2020.”
The virtual high school graduation ceremonies, scheduled for June 13, will open with performances of “Pomp and Circumstance,” the National Anthem and musical accompaniments and speeches from the superintendent, board director, principal, students, and staff member.
The ceremony includes a reading of graduate names, accompanied by video footage of graduation walks or student photo, an official acceptance of the Class of 2020 and a virtual turning of the tassel. For more information, visit fwps.org
JUNE 13 GRADUATION TIMES
Decatur High School, 9 a.m.
Federal Way High School, 10:30 a.m.
Todd Beamer High School, noon
Thomas Jefferson High School, 1:30 p.m.
Career Academy, Open Doors and Internet Academy: 3 p.m.
Employment Transition Program, 4:30 p.m.
TAF@Saghalie, 5:30 p.m.