VHS graduates star in memorable finale

Graduates of the Class of 2020 throw their caps in the air as the graduation ceremony ends Saturday morning at The Villages High School.

The Villages High School’s graduation Saturday at The H.G. Morse Range stadium was one to remember for generations to come.

“I’ll tell my grandkids about it,” said Reese Chavis, who was one of 227 participating graduates. “It was epic.”

Randy McDaniel, The Villages Charter School education director, and The Villages High School Principal Rob Grant wore clear plastic face shields and gloves.

McDaniel gave each graduate a diploma, a fist-bump and pat on the back. Then Grant turned graduates’ tassels from the left side of their mortarboard caps to the right.

Everyone else wore masks, including graduates, who had dark green face coverings that matched their caps and gowns with a gold “V” and white “2020.”

Senior class members each received two green tickets and two gold tickets.

Instead of graduating in the school courtyard as had been school tradition, they walked into the stadium to “Pomp and Circumstance.” They lined up on the track around the field 6 feet apart with their green ticket holders, who were parents in many families.

As each graduate stepped forward to cross the stage alone as an adult, their parents and loved ones stepped aside and headed toward chairs spaced apart on the front of the field.

Behind the chairs for the green ticket holders were signs with each graduate’s senior yearbook photo arranged to say “2020.”

Drones quietly buzzed over the field to capture photographs and video of the “2020” arrangement and displayed it on the huge video screen on the scoreboard and in a live video that friends and extended family could watch on the school website, tvcs.org.

Each gold ticket holder, often a sibling or grandparent, sat in the stands on a green X  taped to a bench.  Pairs of green X’s were spaced 6 feet and three rows from each other.  Ticket holders also were told to wear masks.

“I think under the circumstances, they’ve done a remarkable job,” said Jacqueline Ashley, of Leesburg, after watching her granddaughter, Ashley Summers, graduate with her VHS class.

Grandmother Doris King, of Belleview, said she was impressed with the planning and the way everyone walked in and stayed 6 feet apart. She was there to watch her granddaughter, Emma Symonds, graduate.

The road to Saturday’s graduation entailed extra hard work, one of the core values that  graduates have carried throughout their education at the charter school.

When students left school in March for what was scheduled as a one-week spring break, they didn’t know they wouldn’t be back until graduation rehearsal this week.

Using the Chromebook computers VHS students have for homework and other assignments, they finished the school year through online learning as the COVID-19 global pandemic closed schools and many businesses statewide.

 They didn’t get to walk the halls together in their last months as high school students. They missed other end-of-school traditions, including spring concerts and the end-of-spring sports schedules.

“No one can deny we’ve been through a lot,” salutatorian Kaitlyn Froehle said in her speech projected on the video screen. “We’ve been challenged and disappointed.

“I’m incredibly proud of this class’s grace and resilience through this unexpected adversity. I’m overjoyed at the altruism and dedication we’ve shown, not only through this pandemic but through the whole of our time here at VHS.”

Despite the challenges of online learning without seeing their friends or teachers in person except over video conferencing applications, 100% of this year’s seniors graduated on time.

“Our class has the potential to do whatever we put our minds to,” valedictorian Zachary Baty said, exhorting his classmates to dream big. “Our futures are equivalent to the decisions we make.”

“We will forever be remembered as the seniors that bested a global pandemic and created their own path into the future,” Baty said.

Staff writer Dayna Straehley can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5408, or dayna.straehley@thevillagesmedia.com.