Finding solutions for graduation 2020: a collaborative series by Neighborhood Media & the West Park Times

Graduation 2020 in Cleveland was covered in four parts by the West Park Times in collaboration with Neighborhood Media with assistance from a grant provided by Solutions Journalism. Cleveland’s solutions were found to be derived from Toledo, so we followed up with them and their success as well.


West Park senior learns to adjust in a changing world

West Park Senior Adjust to Changing World, Graduation 2020, Solutions Journalism, Jerry Masek

No prom, no traditional graduation ceremony, no hanging out with friends.

It would be perfectly normal if members of the Class of 2020 feel cheated and depressed as they watch a national pandemic wash away their senior year. 

But that’s not the case, says Faith Habrat of West Park. “I’ve talked a lot with other seniors, and we agree. We started the year together, and we are going to end it together. We’ll just remember all the good times. We’ll be fine.”

“We are trying not to feel cheated. We understand that everyone is doing what they can.”

But she admits,”It has been scary. It’s not the senior year I expected.”

Prom has been pushed back to July, and may not happen at all.

“I’m not really huge on prom,” she said. “But to not have it is very upsetting. It is a good time to share with friends.”

Before the shutdown, Faith attended the Cleveland School of Science and Medicine, located next to the sprawling Cleveland Clinic campus. Since March, he has studied at home.

“I try to cope with that. Life is hectic, and its really frustrating and hard. We text and e-mail our teachers and our principal a lot throughout the day. They are very helpful. We want to make sure we know what their expectations are.”

This summer, Faith will work as a camp counselor at Youth Opportunities Unlimited (YOU). After that, she begins work on a psychology at the University of Cincinnati.

For now, she is focusing a school-by-school drive-thru graduation ceremony that all Cleveland seniors will eventually particpate in.

Her graduation party was “no big get-together.” but a drive-by parade of family and friends as they drove past her house on Woodbury Ave., on Sunday afternoon, May 24.

Pre-party checklist: Cap, check. Gown, check. Mask, check.

It’s still an event that Faith will never forget.


Learning to hit curve balls in the COVID era

As a star softball player for 10 years, Abby Peterson learned to hit whatever pitch was thrown. This year, as a graduating senior at St. Joseph Academy, she saw a lot of real-life curve balls and changeups because of the pandemic:

  • Her spring softball season washed away completely, including a long-planned trip to Myrtle Beach.
  • Her summer softball season was cut in half.
  • She watched her graduation “ceremony” on a video at a drive-in theater.
  • Her restaurant employment was interrupted.
  • Her on-campus college orientation become a virtual experience.
  • Prom and the traditional “Walk of Roses” ceremony may or may not happen. 

That’s a lot of change to throw at an 18-year-old. Through it all, Abby maintained a 4.2 grade point average, graduated with high honors, and regained her job at Applebee’s Restaurant in Rocky River.

Her positive attitude helped.

“There was a lot of uncertainty this year,” she said. “We never knew what was going to happen. We learned to live in the moment. Nothing in life is guaranteed.”

“Batter up!”

Softball should been a major part of her senior year. Abby pitches and plays infield. During her junior year, the team enjoyed a record-setting 21-6 season.

“This would have been a great year for us. Now, we’re not happy. It’s kind of sad. I really wanted to play one more season,” Abby said.

“An extended break”

“At first, they told us we would be back in 3 weeks, and we were happy for an extended break. Then, the break kept getting longer and longer. The school year ended really fast.”

At home, Abby quickly adopted a routine of waking up early, tackling her work in four subjects, and taking long walks in the Metroparks later in the day. There were a lot of Zoom meetings, e-mail and work in Google Classroom.

“I had never even heard of Zoom before,” she said. “As much as possible, our teachers tried to run the classes as if we were really there.”

It all led up to a graduation ceremony spread out over several days for social distancing. SJA assembled a video of all graduates picking up their diplomas, and played it at drive-in theater in North Ridgeville. Students and their families watched from cars, but classmates were nearby, and the social time was both safe and enjoyable.

A future filled with question marks

Graduation party? Maybe. Prom? Maybe. Walk of Roses? Maybe. When to leave for college? No date set yet.

Abby plans to major in business at Ohio University, and may eventually go into Law or Marketing. Although OU plans to re-open this fall, no date has been set. Orientation has changed from an on-campus to a virtual experience.

“I’m just looking forward to a future without COVID,” Abby said. ” I want a normal freshman year at college, I am going to stay positive and move forward.”

Footnote: Abby’s biggest fans are her parents, Alan and Kelli Peterson — a proud 1993 graduate of SJA.


How the pandemic changed ‘pomp and circumstance’

It is often said that “necessity is the mother of invention.” That was certainly true this spring as the pandemic brought a halt to old ways of celebrating.

School officials were faced with a huge challenge ― plan a high school graduation ceremony that would satisfy necessary health guidelines/restrictions; give graduates the recognition they deserved, and still keep school traditions alive. The guidelines were mandated by Gov. DeWine and the Ohio Departments of Education and Health.

Let’s look at the two high schools in West Park.


John Marshall High School

Graduates get ‘15 seconds of fame’

Horns honked. Families cheered and applauded. Cameras flashed. Students hung out of car windows as a car procession began. A pep band musician showed up with his drums and a sign reading, ‘Graduates, you rock.’ There were hugs, few tears, and lots of proud parents. Cars were decorated with balloons and signs. School district CEO Eric Gordon directed traffic wearing a cap, gown, and face mask.

    Welcome to graduation in the pandemic era.

On June 17, JMHS graduates enjoyed 76-degree temperatures and clear skies. They gathered at Max Hayes High School, 2211 W. 65th St., chosen by CMSD officials because of the central location and unique parking layout. Here, John Marshall and all the West Side high schools could hold outside graduation ceremonies that satisfied all State-mandated social distancing guidelines.

Every parking spot was marked with a number. Students were assigned a number ahead of time ― one car per family. Some students arrived an hour before the ceremony started, for social time. It had been a long time since they were last together.

Right on time, the ceremony began with a pre-recorded National Anthem, and a few speeches. It was live-streamed, and everyone watched from their car.

When the roll call began, a car procession formed from the parking lot to a nearby loop road near the school. Each car stopped near decorations of balloons. The graduate stepped out, took two steps to get the diploma, have his photo taken, and tip his/her hat to the principal. As the car continued down the loop road, the graduate was greeted with more cheers, applause, and signs from faculty, family, and friends.

Their 15 seconds of fame were over ― and so were their four years of high school.

Find our full gallery of photos from John Marshall’s graduation day here.


Saint Joseph Academy

Mixing compassion with strength

“Saint Joseph Academy is committed to honoring the Class of 2020 and upholding the dignity of these end-of-year traditions, while still protecting the health and safety of the entire Academy community,” SJA spokesperson Mackenzie Schuler said in an email. Founded in 1890 by the Sisters of the Congregation of St. Joseph, SJA is an all-girl Catholic high school in West Park. Students come throughout Greater Cleveland.

To start the graduation process, faculty and staff distributed caps, gowns and yard signs to members of the Class of 2020. The in-person commencement ceremony took place over three days ―  May 18, 19, 20 ― to ensure that social distancing and other guidelines were followed. Photos and video were taken as each student was recognized. The video included a pre-recording of scripture readings, commencement speaker President Mary Ann Corrigan-Davis (who retires on June 30), a student speaker and traditional songs.

During her remarks, President Mary Ann Corrigan-Davis quoted former Ohio Health Director Dr. Amy Acton, who once said, “I refuse to believe you cannot be both compassionate and strong.” She pointed out that Jesus Christ was also compassionate and strong, and urged graduates to follow that role model.

Links to photos and the video were posted on-line. Graduates and their families and friends were also invited to see the video at the Aut-O-Rama Drive-In Theater in North Ridgeville.

Student speaker Sarah Scarpitti referred to the pandemic in her remarks.

“…the past few months have brought a lot of uncertainty to our days. No one anticipated that we would encounter such an obstacle this year, but we will be able to look back and smile ―  because we are fighting to conquer it now. And for the Class of 2020, it’s going to be about moving forward with the lessons we learned from this unfathomable experience. So much light has been shed on some of the most fundamental truths of life. And I wholeheartedly believe that we, The Class of 2020 ― standing at one of the many pinnacles of our lives ― were awakened to some of these fundamental truths.”

“We understand that waking up to a new adventure every day is the ultimate blessing ―  we won’t take for granted even the simplest moments that appear to be freely given. We realize that PHYSICALLY going to school is an extraordinary gift. We have felt the power of prayer and of hope. We stood face-to-face with the phrase “this, too, shall pass”. We have recognized, at one point or another, that suffering isn’t an individual hardship ―  it’s a shared experience. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ’s name ― and solidarity and interdependence can heal even the deepest wounds.”

Schuler said the ceremonial Walk of the Roses procession, which attracts crowds along Rocky River Drive, is tentatively set for Tuesday, July 14or a later date in 2020 to be determined.

“We hope that larger public gatherings may be allowed later this year,” she said. “There is no guarantee that conditions will be better in July or even later this year, and it may have to be cancelled. Let’s keep our fingers crossed ― and our hands washed!” She wrote. “We are so very proud of the Class of 2020 and grateful for their resilience in these tumultuous times!”


The digital age

Memories of the event are already available. The livestream version that students watched in their cars has been added to YouTube. For the link, go to

Videos of this graduation ― and others ― will be aired soon on TV-43. Details will be announced.

District photographers also documented the event, and those images will be available soon.

A photo gallery can currently be seen here at the West Park Times.


*All stories written by Jerry Masek, who also contributed additional photography – Video produced by the West Park Times in collaboration with Neighborhood Media and Rich Weiss of the Tremonster.

What we learned: In occasions such as these, it isn’t always easy to keep a distance from people. Graduates want photos with their family members and friends. They want those memories. But, in an era of COVID-19, these traditions weren’t always realities, and things were often put on hold. Photographs, celebrations, ceremonies – nothing was quite the same and none of it was done until it could be performed safely without furthering the spread of the virus. Overall, while sacrifices were made, the class of 2020 within the metropolitan school districts of both Toledo and Cleveland were able to successfully hold graduation ceremonies in a drive-through fashion.

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