Class of 2020 gets its ceremony

Mini-commencements help create ‘wonderful memories under unusual circumstances’ for RFA grads

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“It was very well planned...a great idea,” parent Sadie Novak said happily this morning as she exited the first of six Rome Free Academy graduation mini-ceremonies at RFA Stadium that were geared to meet crowd restrictions due to COVID-19.

“I’m so proud of you,” Novak said to her daughter Alexandrea Buehler, in the first group of about 50 RFA Class of 2020 members who received diplomas while about 100 family members watched from a designated RFA Stadium section with socially distanced seating.

“It went very well,” added Buehler’s grandmother Nancy Novak, following an approximately 30-minute ceremony in which students wearing orange gloves received diplomas from similarly gloved Board of Education President Stephen P. Hampe and school district Superintendent Peter C. Blake. They exchanged fist bumps with students during each diploma presentation.

A light drizzle began during the ceremony, but Nancy Novak noted “without a little rain, you don’t appreciate...the sunshine.”

The 8 a.m. ceremony after concluding was followed by district staffers cleaning and sanitizing the stadium seats as well as the student seating area on the football field, before the second group of graduating students began their processional around 9 a.m. The schedule called for four more mini-ceremonies at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., noon and 1 p.m., totaling slightly over 300 RFA graduates.

“I’m happy it’s going off” including being “able to do it in-person,” parent James Rizzo said as he waited to enter for the first mini-ceremony. The father of Class of 2020 valedictorian Erika Rizzo, he said the ceremony would create “wonderful memories under unusual circumstances.”

Among others at the first ceremony was Craig Ferretti, father of Class of 2020 salutatorian Nicolas Ferretti. Immediately after it finished, he said “it went great....I give a lot of credit to the district for doing it” in that manner. He added a lot of other school districts would not have gone to such lengths to “do this for the kids....”

Nicolas Ferretti, also the RFA student association president, said Thursday he was “happy with the outcome” for the graduation procedures. The entire senior class was polled on multiple potential ways to conduct the event, he said, adding the six-ceremony option received about 65% of the vote.

“Although we can’t graduate with all of our friends, most students are still very happy with this option,” he commented. “It is not ideal, but it is definitely the best option based on the current rules and guidelines.”

The schedule included Erika Rizzo and Nicolas Ferretti presenting their respective valedictory and salutatory addresses at each of the six ceremonies, along with class president Hana Samad announcing class appreciation gifts and remembrances. Among them were graduation cords to recognize student achievements in clubs, sports and extracurriculars including activities that may not have been able to finish regularly after school buildings closed in mid-March; light-pole banners for the school; a scholarship fund including for students of ethnic backgrounds who are dedicated to school and community; and financial allocations for organizations in health care and social reform.

The selections will be part of the “legacy of the unforgettable Class of 2020,” said Samad.

Blake said after the first ceremony that a rain-or-shine graduation event with no rain date was decided upon by students and the RFA planning committee for it. Conducting a series of ceremonies over an approximately six-hour time window made a rain date difficult to plan for, he said, including not knowing if the weather would be better on Sunday.

Blake said plans included to move students and spectators into separate gyms inside the nearby stadium support facility building if lightning and/or a thunderstorm developed during one of the mini-ceremonies. Plans called for the groups to wait inside there until lightning or a storm had passed, and then the given mini-ceremony would resume, he added.
 
Adjustments were made after the first mini-ceremony to enable subsequent ones to be a bit shorter, said Blake, including slightly moving some of the involved locations on the field where students were proceeding. This was done to aim for ceremonies of about 20-25 minutes instead of 30, he said, adding it would allow more "wiggle room" if needed due to a rain delay. Cleaning of the stadium seating for spectators and the field seating for students took about 10 minutes following the first ceremony, he observed.
 
The seating locations in the central section of the stadium grandstand included yellow "x's" in socially distanced spots within every other row, designating where the spectator groups should sit. Other sections of the grandstand were blocked with yellow tape to prevent sitting there.
 
Despite the much smaller gathering than a typical RFA graduation in which all or most of the grandstand is filled, spectators expressed plenty of enthusiasm including shouts of approval as students' names were individually called over the speaker system to receive diplomas. Spectators roared and applauded when RFA Principal Brian LeBaron concluded the first mini-ceremony by presenting the students as graduates and Blake told students to move their hat tassels from right to left signifying their achievement.

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