Cochranton Class of 2020

Following a videoconference with Crawford Central School District officials to discuss graduation plans, a group of Cochranton Junior-Senior High moms pose with their children, all graduating seniors, and the banners honoring them that have been placed along North Franklin Street in the borough.

COCHRANTON — When a Facebook post earlier this month announced Crawford Central School District’s plans for a virtual graduation ceremony, a number of parents of seniors at Cochranton Junior-Senior High weren’t angry ... they were disappointed.

It was another in a steady stream of minor disappointments they have experienced on their children’s behalf over the past two months during the COVID-19 pandemic: disappointment over canceled sports seasons; disappointment over abandoned prom plans; disappointment over seeing their seniors, about to finish 13 years of schooling and embark on adulthood, unable to participate fully in what was supposed to be a celebration of their accomplishments.

They recognized the need to make public safety a priority, the parents said in interviews last week, but they also felt the district and the school could do more to recognize Cochranton’s 65 seniors while still maintaining public safety.

The virtual graduation initially proposed by the district was “just not good enough,” according to a letter that parent Lori Guianen sent to the district and shared on Facebook. That plan called for online streaming of the usual remarks by school officials and students and the reading of graduates’ names. Students would be asked to submit photographs that would be shown as their names were announced. Diplomas would not be distributed in the hopes that an in-person event could be held later in the summer.

Cochranton senior Austin Saulsbery was not excited by the plan.

“I’ve told everybody, if they’re doing virtual (graduation), I don’t want to be part of it,” Saulsbery said following a videoconference between district officials and more than a half-dozen Cochranton parents. “I just think it’s kind of dumb, in all honesty.

“When you work for something for 12 or 13 years — the one thing you’ve looked forward to that entire time,” Saulsbery continued, “for them to say, ‘Yeah, you’re not going to do it that way. …’”

Shaking his head, Saulsbery said an all-virtual alternative to traditional graduation simply left a bad taste in the mouth.

His reaction was typical among Cochranton seniors, according to the group of moms who gathered at Amber McDonough’s home to participate in the videoconference, their second of the week with Superintendent Tom Washington and other district officials.

“Having them together — that’s always been our thing,” said Aarone Schlosser, mother of graduating senior Kendyl Schlosser.

Achieving that wouldn’t be possible if the district tried to stage a more traditional graduation later in the summer: eight of Cochranton’s graduates will be headed to the military, a rare instance in which more than 10 percent of a senior class enlists, according to Washington.

“There is no waiting for July or August,” said Melissa Dunlevy, whose son Justin will begin self-quarantining on June 30 before departing for Air Force basic training on July 13. “We can’t if we want to include all of the kids.”

By the time they logged on for their second Zoom call with Washington last week, the parents’ disappointment was edging into frustration. With the end of the school year rapidly approaching, they felt in the dark because of what they described as a lack of communication from the school. One dad in the videoconference said he had signed up for Facebook so he could check the district’s May 5 announcement regarding virtual graduation. He wouldn’t have known about the plans otherwise, he said.

But there was more to their frustration.

The feeling like their children were not getting the experience they deserved was combined with the quarantine fatigue so common these days. On top of that, there was the uncertainty regarding the logistics of reopening from the COVID-19 shutdown: Given the low impact of the coronavirus on Crawford County and the county’s “yellow phase” reopening status, couldn’t some sort of outdoor ceremony be held with limited groups of people? If not, surely the county will be in the green phase by early June — wouldn’t it be OK to stage a masked and socially distanced outdoor event then?

Why, they wondered, are some other school districts planning more elaborate ceremonies or holding out for the possibility of a move to the green phase in early June?

They were questions the district was not in a position to answer. In fact, Washington told them, he had been asking similar questions of state officials.

“We thought we might be in good shape to be in green,” Washington said. “What we’ve learned over the last two or three weeks is we don’t know what the criteria is to make it to green. We’ve been trying to figure that out.”

The good news, Washington continued, is that the graduation plans had been modified in response to concerns raised by parents. Instead of the all-virtual event originally conceived, he said, the ceremony for Cochranton seniors on June 5 will include an in-person element modeled on the traditional ceremony but without the usual crowded gymnasium.

Entering the gym one at a time with up to seven guests in staggered intervals, students will walk across the stage to receive their diplomas, according to a letter sent by Principal Don Wigton to Cochranton families. The event will also be streamed online and will include as many of the usual elements as possible, according to Washington.

It’s not all they had hoped for and it should not have taken such involvement on their part, the parents agreed, but it was a definite improvement over the coldly virtual event they had feared.

“It’s better,” Schlosser said, “than five pictures on a slideshow.”

Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.

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