Instead of delivering his graduation speech in front of hundreds of his classmates and their families this May, Zile Cao gave his speech to a camera.
The Norman North senior class president will graduate this week — along with hundreds of his peers at Norman North and Norman High — in a virtual ceremony, where his pre-recorded speech will be aired as part of the program.
“When you give a speech to no audience, to the camera, you never know how it’s going to turn out,” said Cao, who recorded his address about two weeks ago. “Definitely the atmosphere won’t be there, but I’m still definitely grateful that we were able to plan and get everything together.”
Norman Public Schools will be hosting virtual ceremonies at 7 p.m. Thursday for Norman North and 7 p.m. Friday for Norman High. The traditionally in-person celebrations have been challenged by COVID-19, which pushed the district into distance learning nearly two months ago.
For students, while this week’s virtual graduations represent a milestone, they’re not the ending anyone expected. Through the challenges of senior year — the stress of figuring out the future, applying to colleges and pushing through the pangs of senioritis — graduation was always something to look forward to, Cao said.
“It’s a thing that everybody’s been looking forward to,” Cao said. “This is a chance to enjoy the moment — everything that we’ve worked for [for] the last 18 years comes to this moment. We finally get recognized and honored for all of the hard work and dedication we’ve put into this year, and to have a virtual ceremony like that — although this is the best option we have right now, for many of us, it’s not our ideal senior experience.”
At Norman North, Principal Kristi Gray has seen the impact of distance learning and virtual graduations on her senior class first-hand through her son, who will graduate from the school this week. While administrators have been physically far from the senior class since mid-March, Gray said she’s been able to keep in touch with some of this year’s graduates via Zoom and email.
“Being on Zoom calls and getting to see the faces of our kids is just the best part, because that is why we all went into education, because we love being around kids and watching them grow and develop,” Gray said.
David Jackson, principal at Norman High, said he and his administrative team have been working on staying connected with seniors via a newsletter, mass texts and social media, and that administrators have been trying to receive as much student feedback as possible as they’ve planned on how to move forward. Jackson, who is finishing his first year with the district, said he has seen immense maturity from Norman High’s seniors throughout the process.
“They’re disappointed, they get it, they’re frustrated with not being able to have those things, but even in the speeches that the students are giving in graduation, they’re reflecting on, hey, this class has gone through a lot of challenges in their educational career, and they just say ‘hey, we’ve risen to the occasion on all these other things — this is no different,’” Jackson said.
The logistics of putting together virtual ceremonies have been “a tremendous process,” Gray said. Administrators incorporated all the usual pieces of an in-person ceremony — keeping the planned student speakers onboard — but the virtual ceremony naturally required some extra processes, like tracking down photos of all of Norman North’s 525 graduates, Gray said.
The process came together through lots of communication and collaboration at both schools, Jackson said.
“I know both of us did some polling at the beginning to see what portions are important to students, what they want to see in a graduation ceremony, and that played heavily into what we ended up with as a product,” Jackson said.
Despite all the work that’s gone into piecing together a virtual ceremony, Jackson said he knows the virtual recognition is “a filler until we can do the real thing.”
While district administrators have promised an in-person graduation experience for the class of 2020, for now, the virtual ceremony isn’t all that some students were hoping for.
Callahan Stroud, senior class president at Norman High, said while the virtual ceremony is all that can be done right now, it won’t necessarily provide the closure that a traditional May graduation might.
Stroud said though he’s been keeping in contact with his friends as best and as safely as he can, the pandemic has already taken away some of the connection that in-person education brings, and without an in-person May ceremony, there might be some classmates he doesn’t see again.
“What I was excited about for graduation was just being about to be around everybody who I’ve spent the last four years with, or if I went to middle school with them, seven years, or elementary it’s even more — I was just looking forward to saying goodbye to them, and that probably won’t happen,” Stroud said. “There’s a lot of people who I don’t talk to outside of school that make school as good of an experience as it was.”
Stroud and Cao said they’re hopeful about the possibility of an in-person ceremony later this summer for one last chance to say goodbye. The district has announced that an in-person ceremony in early August might be possible, and a date is still forthcoming.
“That would at least give us the sense of closure that a graduation is supposed to give,” said Stroud, whose pre-recorded graduation speech will also be featured in his school's virtual ceremony this week. “Even if I don’t get to see them for the summer, I’d like to see everybody one more time in a cap and gown.”
Despite the circumstance, Cao and Stroud said their senior class is resilient, and can find a way to make the best of the next few months, even through the unexpected.
"It sucks that corona has kind of robbed us of the traditional senior experience," Stroud said, "but there's nothing we can do about that, and we just have to make the best of our situation and just try to stay connected and enjoy it as much as we can."
Norman North’s virtual graduation is at 7 p.m. May 21; Norman High’s is at 7 p.m. May 22. Both will be livestreamed on Norman Public Schools’ Facebook and YouTube pages.
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