RFA Class of 2020 hailed for being 'flexible, intelligent, motivated, and compassionate'

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After attending six Rome Free Academy graduation mini-ceremonies lasting more than five hours, including reading her speech to her classmates at each one, valedictorian Erika Rizzo's initial reaction when asked how she felt about the event was that she was "tired."

But Rizzo also noted "it was good" overall, and praised the school district's efforts in coordinating the commencement Saturday; the mini-ceremonies at RFA Stadium that totaled slightly over 300 graduates, with about 50 students and 100 family members attending each one, were presented in accordance with crowd restrictions involving COVID-19.

"They made the best of the situation," Rizzo commented. "The school district really pulled through and made it good for us."

Her father James Rizzo, who attended the first ceremony and came back to give Erika a ride after the final one, said he followed the other ceremonies through an online livestream feed. He added "the rain really held off" for much of the time and "considering the forecast" for rainy weather, the event "went well" overall.

On a day that began with ominous forecasts calling for some storms, RFA's rain-or-shine graduation observance took place almost entirely on schedule. The fifth and sixth mini-ceremonies each started about 10 minutes late due to heavy rainfall that came as the fourth one was ending.

Otherwise, the ceremonies beginning with the first one at 8 a.m. Saturday proceeded basically as planned amid some periodic drizzles; the schedule had called for starting each ceremony on the hour between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m., with each one planned to last about 25-30 minutes followed by cleaning and sanitizing stadium seating areas before the next group arrived. The last one ended at about 1:40 p.m. as RFA Principal Brian LeBaron declared the conclusion of perhaps "the most memorable of the 151 commencement ceremonies in Rome Free Academy's history."

Standing shortly afterward on the RFA Stadium turf where students received diplomas, school district Superintendent Peter C. Blake said "it went phenomenally...all things considered." He noted "the kids were phenomenal" and "parents were awesome," expressing his "thanks to everyone who helped out and made it happen."

Board President Stephen P. Hampe said it poured at around 11:30 a.m. Saturday, about when the fourth mini-ceremony was finishing with students' traditional moving of their graduation hat tassels from right to left. As heavy rain continued, he said, students and parents arriving for the fifth ceremony were sent into gym areas inside the nearby stadium support facility building to wait for it to subside.

Hampe said some people observed that for the graduating students and "given all they went through" near the end of the school year including the many disruptions and cancellations due to COVID-19, "of course it had to rain in the middle of the ceremonies."

The beginning of the fifth mini-ceremony was delayed to "let the rain calm down," said Blake, adding there was "a steady drizzle at the start of the fifth one" and it "calmed down by the end." The weather was dry throughout the sixth and final ceremony, as appreciated by some parents/spectators in the RFA Stadium grandstand who said "at least we're not getting wet" and "it rained for...other ones."

The end of the fourth ceremony and the start of the fifth one were "a little brutal" because of the weather, remarked Blake. But overall "we're not complaining, that's for sure," he emphasized.

"A lot of other things could have gone wrong," commented Blake, adding that as things turned out the district did not end up having to worry about thunder and lightning which had been forecast for some parts of Saturday morning but did not occur. "One steady hard rain was about it."

In his online blog Sunday, Blake saluted RFA's Class of 2020 and said "you made it! Despite every challenge, hurdle, roadblock...that was thrown your way, you have persevered and made it."

Commenting that adults often talk about children growing up so much faster nowadays, Blake called the Class of 2020 "a prime example" of that.

"I know for a fact my senior class in high school could not have handled all of the changes to our schooling, combined with the uncertainties and fear associated with a pandemic with the same grace that the RFA Class of 2020 has handled these past three months," Blake remarked. "With every step, you have been calm, patient, objective, and focused on the goal."

School buildings closed in mid-March because of COVID-19, and remote instruction continued including online programs. Some traditional year-end school events were canceled, and others were held on a remote virtual basis when possible.

"If there were any group of seniors that could handle the changing world around us, it will be these students," said Blake. "Our Class of 2020 is going to change the world for the better, and we need to watch and learn from them. These students are flexible, intelligent, motivated, and compassionate...."

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