A line of about 70 cars ringed the parking lot at Riverside High School Monday night. Teri Douglas had only put together the event that day.
Her son, Todd — a Riverside senior and her last child to graduate — was in the lead car as the convoy awaited the 8:20 p.m. rollout.
At the Walmart a half-mile down Warrior Way from the school, a worker at the caution-tape- and metal-gate-narrowed entrance told a customer the store was about to close. The sun was setting behind the distant flat ridge of mountains.
But the football stadium lights were on. So, too, were the lights of the cars. As the 8:20 mark passed, they began honking and driving laps along the road behind the home bleachers.
One person rang a cowbell from a vehicle window. A poodle stuck its head out another. Someone parked an SUV with a candidate’s name emblazoned on it where everyone had to drive by it.
“Class of 2020,” said a sign atop another SUV. “They shut down the whole world.”
Both the timing of the event (8:20 p.m. is 20:20 military time) and the date (4-20-20) were chosen to honor the Class of 2020. This senior class, either at Riverside or anywhere else in the state, may never have a regular high school graduation due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Monday’s event was no cap-and-gown-clad walk across the stage, with the calling of your name to the crowd met by cheers and whistles. But it was a safer way to honor seniors, at a time when gathering to honor a life milestone could actually endanger lives.
Teri Douglas said she put together the event not just to honor students, along with essential workers, but to give seniors hope they can eventually have a regular graduation and some spring sports.
Todd said he wanted to return to classes and play baseball.
“I don’t care if I get to play one or two games, I just want to get back on the field with my friends,” he said. “This was going to be a year for us.”
Hours later, on Tuesday, his hopes were dashed when the Secondary School Activities Commission canceled baseball and other springs sports. That announcement came shortly after Gov. Jim Justice dropped his plan to have students return to classes May 1.
Justice had abandoned his previously expressed hope that students could return, but he held out another hope Tuesday: in-person graduations.
“It’s so meaningful, to lots and lots and lots of families and lots of kids,” he said. “So I would urge all schools to — someway — find time and a place that you can pull that off, that you can pull that together.”
For any type of physical graduation to occur, Justice would have to at least partially lift his own current stay-at-home order because it bans gatherings of more than 10 people.
“The expectation would be many of these stay-at-home orders may not be in place as the summer progresses,” said Brian Abraham, Justice’s general counsel. He added schools would still have to follow whatever social distancing requirements would be in place at that time.
State schools Superintendent Clayton Burch said during the same news conference Tuesday that a task force is looking at graduation.
Christy Day, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, wrote in an email the task force has 25 members, including “county leaders,” state Board of Education President Dave Perry and Vice President Miller Hall.
But Day also wrote that “the Taskforce makes no decisions and only offers information/guidance.” She said it has only met once so far and has sent a survey to counties to gauge their graduation plans.
Perry said the task force’s next meeting will be public. He said counties’ graduation plans are supposed to be submitted to the education department by Friday.
He said the plans must have local health department approval, and counties must gather input from students, teachers and administrators.
A news release from the department said “counties will work with their boards of education and local health departments to determine details around graduation ceremonies which may look very different than in years past.”
Kanawha County, which has eight public high schools including Riverside, has already canceled prom.
Kanawha schools spokeswoman Briana Warner wrote in an email that all eight high schools have backup graduation dates between June 24-27.
“These dates and plans are all tentative and will be used only if social gatherings are permitted by the state, local officials and medical community,” she wrote. “There are additional backup plans being made in the case that we would not be able to gather at that time.”
The virus will certainly still be around in June.
Kara Stanley, a senior at Oak Glen High in Hancock County, wrote in an email that “it’s very upsetting to know I’ll never get to do things I’ve been looking forward to for years.”
“My graduation and prom so far have not been canceled just moved,” Stanley wrote, “but it’s no guarantee either of them will happen. I haven’t bought my prom dress in fear I wouldn’t get to wear it.”
Stanley said she’s an athlete and in band, and she’ll miss both.
“I’ve cried many times over knowing I’m done and I still had so much to do, and over the fact I might not get to say goodbye to some teachers and underclassmen that I got to know,” she wrote.
“We are very stressed and upset,” she said of the Class of 2020. “This was supposed to be the best year of our lives. It sure doesn’t feel like it. Ending this year was supposed to be bittersweet, but now it’s just bitter.”
Cami Stephenson, a senior at Washington High in Jefferson County who is president of her student software and website development company at the James Rumsey Technical Institute, wrote that she’s “extremely sad about school closing.”
“Had I known that my school district was going to close their doors for the rest of the school year, I would have hugged my friends a little tighter, said my final goodbye to all of my teachers, and thanked the administration for being so awesome,” she wrote.
“Prom, Graduation, Senior night, everything has been stolen from us,” she wrote. “Since I am a student at JRTI, I also fear not being able to get my certificate because of this closure. I would give anything to go back to school, just for a day. I miss my peers, I miss my instructors, I miss my sense of routine. I am so afraid of having a virtual graduation and not being able to walk across the stage with the people I’ve known since kindergarten.”
Todd Douglas, the Riverside senior who has now lost his baseball season, said, “This is only a once-in-a-lifetime thing: your graduation, your prom, your senior year, you only get to do that once.”
At the school Monday night, Haidyn Bare began to cry as she talked about what’s happened to her senior year.
“We’ve made all these friends and memories and we got to watch all the senior classes have the best year of their life, and get to have graduation, prom, spend time with their friends,” she said. “And then ours gets cut short because of a virus, and I get that it’s very serious, but I just wish things would’ve went differently and we could’ve had our last year together.”
As the honks wound down, someone driving a side-by-side broke out of line and speeded off down Warrior Way, past a parked black locomotive.
As it went, the side-by-side was blasting that high school nostalgia classic, “Summer of ‘69.”
The speakers blared: “Those were the best days of my life.”