English teacher Anne Duff fought back tears as she waved to the line of West High School seniors passing by in front of her in the school parking lot Friday.
With two weeks left of the school year, they would have been preparing for commencement ceremonies. Instead, Duff and dozens of other teachers, administrators and staff gathered to honor the Wolf Pack’s class of 2020 through a Senior Sunset Parade with social distancing.
“I think the students sometime don’t realize how much they mean to us and how important these milestones are to us also,” Duff said. “We know they are important to them. We want them to have these meaningful experiences.”
High schools across the nation have sponsored similar parades as part of a campaign called Be the Light, honoring seniors whose graduation events have been canceled or postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tracy Unified School District announced in April that high school commencement ceremonies would be moved to early August, when administrators hope large gatherings will again be possible. If state and local restrictions are still in place, the ceremonies may be postponed again or canceled outright.
In her 16 years teaching at West High, Duff said she has attended every commencement ceremony but one.
“Graduation never gets old, and these kids had it ripped away from them,” she said. “We definitely want to celebrate with them, and we also want to have a chance to say the goodbye we didn’t have a chance to say.”
Beginning at 7:20 p.m. Friday, seniors in decorated cars driven by family members looped through the parking lot where teachers had set up decorations and gathered to cheer. Seniors were not allowed to leave their vehicles, and teachers stayed a safe distance away.
The parade lasted about 40 minutes. A DJ played music, and seniors and their families honked their horns and waved to teachers and classmates as they returned to campus as the class of 2020.
Duff said that teachers, like students, had taken the abrupt school closures in March hard.
“Everything stopped on March 13. Calendars are still on the walls, half-graded assignments are sitting on desks and half-completed projects are sitting on shelves,” Duff said. “It hurts. We miss it, and we didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye to these kids, and definitely it was painful for us.”
Principal Zach Boswell said the staff wanted to make the night memorable for the seniors, but with social distancing precautions.
“We do want to find a way to celebrate them and give them a good memory,” Boswell said. “We do recognize this is the time of year that we as a staff get to recognize all the hard work students have done and just celebrate them and all the work they have put in for four years.
“This is a way for us to do that and for us to give them something that still follows the proper guidelines that we’ve been asked to follow.”
At Steve Lopez Stadium, the lights were on and the scoreboard clock read 20:20. Chalk messages for the seniors were written across the asphalt as they wound their way around the parking lot.
Boswell stood with TUSD Superintendent Brian Stephens to wave at the cars filing by.
“West High is a family, and people are excited just get to do something, even if it’s at a distance, just to show we care about each other,” the principal said. “Our students are resilient. They’re going to get through it. This has been a huge bummer for a lot of them to not have these things, but they’re still going to go off and do amazing things, and we’re so very proud of them.”
English teacher Melissa Rotondi agreed that it was important to give the class of 2020 a good sendoff from the school.
“We don’t want them to feel they have been forgotten,” she said. “We’re still thinking about them all the time.”
She said the Senior Sunset couldn’t possibly fill the void for students who “are always going to be remembered as the class of 2020 that didn’t get a graduation,” but she hoped coming together on campus would give them some closure.
“They haven’t even been able to see their friends,” she said. “You can only FaceTime so many times, but you get to see your friends every day at school. That’s one of the reasons kids go to school.”
With her son set to graduate, English teacher Shauna Baker acknowledged that he wouldn’t have the same experience as his older siblings, with prom, senior trips and other traditional activities all canceled.
“To see him miss out on those experiences — this will be something special, but it’s not quite the same as graduation,” Baker said.
Still, Friday’s event was a chance to celebrate with the teenagers she, as a teacher, has watched grow up.
“It’s funny, you never really notice how important graduation — the whole commencement — is until you don’t have it,” Baker said. “So here we are trying to make up for it in a way as best we can.”
Duff was grateful to have the faculty and members of the class of 2020 together again.
“Who knows what will happen in August,” she said. “We really hope we have a chance to do the actual graduation for them, but if we don’t, we at least have this night.”
Other local high schools have similar plans.
Tracy High School is having a “Once a Bulldog, Always a Bulldog” parade tonight from 6 to 8 p.m. at the school, 315 E. 11th St.
Kimball High School will have a drive-in celebration on Wednesday at 3200 Jaguar Run with a parade at 7:30 p.m. followed by a slideshow at 8:30 p.m.