by | Jul 13, 2020

Richland graduates prepare for their world

High school graduates have had to suffer through endless repeats of “Pomp and Circumstance” for generations. A typical graduation ceremony would feature fresh-faced seniors lined up in caps and gowns while a packed auditorium resounds with the cheers of friends and family and the strains of “I’ll always remember, my senior year.”

For the class of 2020 things were much different. Some schools cancelled graduation altogether. Others went online, bestowing virtual diplomas. Car parades and photo stops were organized in an all-out effort to honor graduates while maintaining social distancing in a world turned upside down by COVID-19 pandemic.

For graduates at Richland R-1 High School in Essex, their community was determined to provide its seniors with a memorable ceremony. Graduation went on with students carefully spaced 6 feet apart and parents sitting in vehicles while listening to speeches on their car radios.

“It wasn’t what we expected, and it wasn’t what we really wanted to do,” says Emily McGowen, one of the 18 Richland 2020 graduates. “But I feel like our school put a lot of effort into it and our community definitely did to make it good for us. It was the best thing we could have had compared to what was going on.”

Part of that community working behind the scenes was SEMO Electric Cooperative, which serves the small school located near Essex in southeast Missouri. Co-op employees helped make graduation possible by installing a temporary electric service and a Wi-Fi hotspot through its GoSEMO Fiber internet service. GoSEMO’s hotspots also let students without internet service do homework.

“Without SEMO Electric this graduation does not go off,” says Kyle Carter, business teacher for Richland High School and one of the many people tasked with setting up the graduation. “They were a lifeline for us putting out that electric and Wi-Fi so we were able to have electric in the parking lot and use an FM transmitter so people could listen in their car.”

Kyle provided the transmitter from the Christmas display he sets up at his home to broadcast the unusual ceremony. His wife helped extend its range with a low-tech rabbit ear antenna she found at Walmart.

Graduation started with a vehicle parade through town. Everyone turned out to cheer for the graduates. So popular was the parade that it’s likely going to be a part of future Richland graduations.

Due to the need for social distancing, graduates each got four parking passes that allowed relatives to take part in the ceremony. “The parents figured out really fast that they could roll their windows down and scream at their kids like they normally would,” Kyle says. “But they could honk their horns and be a whole lot louder. That was so cool to see those kids going up on stage and all of those parents screaming and honking in support of the kids.”

Against a backdrop of giant grain bins symbolizing the area’s farming roots, the ceremony was held using a flatbed truck for a stage. A school bus was pressed into service to support a 24-foot screen when strong winds threatened to blow it down. A senior video and a video replacing the traditional presentation of roses was shown.

Those videos and the entire ceremony were streamed on Facebook and YouTube thanks to the high-speed connection through GoSEMO. Graduation ended with the seniors throwing their hats into a sky ablaze with fireworks.

“We really just missed the traditional graduation that everyone else got,” says Emily. “We didn’t get to do a lot of the things. We didn’t get to give out the roses or hug our classmates. We couldn’t interact. I know I cried a few times. It was just really emotional.”

Pulling off an amazing graduation in the midst of a pandemic was no sweat for a school focused on training its students for a future that will look much different than it looked for past generations. The tiny school located in the middle of a cornfield prides itself on educating students in nontraditional ways.

 “We just try to imagine what the kids are going to see when they graduate,” says Richland Superintendent Frank Killian. “We try to make sure they are ready for their world. It would be easy to teach them for our world. But if we don’t get them prepared for their world, we are putting them behind.”

The school uses project-based education, customizing the experience based on the goals of individual students. It also relies on technology rather than textbooks. For example, students —who benefit greatly from GoSEMO’s high-speed internet at home — are issued laptops to do homework. For this reason, the school was better prepared for the move to online education brought on by the pandemic, Frank says.

Richland’s students will have more memories of the odd school year thanks to Kyle’s yearbook staff. Students tracked the effects of the pandemic from around the world and closer to home for a yearbook timeline. Students also photographed the graduation thanks to spotlights on loan from other schools as the daylight faded. One student flew a drone to capture an overhead view that included the graduates, the parked cars and the nearby grain bins.

After a memorable graduation, the class of 2020 is ready to move on. “I’m ready for all of this to pass over so I can have my college experience, then start my own job and open my own business,” Emily says. “Even when something like this happens you can’t let it fully change your life. We still have to be us and focus on the good things. Just make as many memories as you can because things can change fast.”

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