Heather O’Shaughnessy with GCPS Broadcast and Distant Learning records Grayson High School valedictorian Claire Mistretta giving her speech for the virtual graduation ceremony set to air Saturday morning. COURTESY OF GWINNETT COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Gwinnett County graduations: Online pomp, despite circumstance

As the first graduating class of Gwinnett County’s McClure Health Science High School, students anticipated a lot of new experiences, but none could fathom this week’s graduation in cyberspace.

“The ceremony was so beautiful,” said Vanessa Franco, a graduating senior. “I was pleasantly surprised at how much they did — especially the Pledge of Allegiance.”

All 24 of Gwinnett County’s public high schools will conduct virtual graduations this week for its 12,736 seniors. Like many districts around the country, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced administrators to become creative in producing a special online experience.

“When we first went to digital learning back in March we wondered then if we’d be finishing school remotely and then, of course, we thought about graduation, too,” said Steve Flynt, associate superintendent for school improvement and operations. “So we got working on a plan right away. We’re fortunate to have a strong broadcast team and district support staff.”

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Although the productions look seamless, hundreds of hours of work behind the scenes went into pulling off the four days of online ceremonies that ran at two-hour intervals. Starting with Phoenix High School at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday and concluding with Lanier High School at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, students, faculty, staff and administrators put together nearly 48 hours of programming in less than a month.

“Each school worked to get the caps and gowns to seniors with a minimum of contact, the production folks prerecorded speeches with no problems — everything came together with no hiccups,” said Flynt.

Graduating senior Claudia Rosell of McClure found the event meaningful, despite being online.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and the school district did such a professional job and put so much effort into it” said Rosell. “I teared up a little.”

She’ll be taking classes at Oglethorpe University and hopes for a career as a nurse practitioner. Her brother is an obstetrician/gynecologist in New York City and she’s dreamed of following him into medicine since the was small.

“What’s happening now in the world has just solidified my commitment to medicine,” said Rosell. Franco would like to do clinical work in Colombia, where her family immigrated from.

“The health care system isn’t the best there,” she said. “I want to help show them how to do better and take better care.”

The vision for putting young people into health care education early on was something Gwinnett County envisioned long ago.

“I couldn’t imagine getting this kind of head start on my career anywhere else,” said Rosell.

The school’s namesake, dermatologist Dr. Robert McClure, who served as a school board member for 24 years, delivered the keynote address. With a long history as a medical professional and advocate for education, he encouraged students to use science as a tool, but not an absolute.

“If the pandemic should kill untold numbers, I also hope that this moment will find us exercising reasonable cautions while doing the best things that humans do like teaching and learning, reading and making music, creating and working, loving and being loved and fighting for human life and dignity to its fullest — not simply sequestered in fear, thinking only about a virus,” he said. “The microbe may break out bodies, but it need not break our minds or our souls.”

Gwinnett has made plans to host in-person graduations in July, if CDC health and safety guidelines permit them.

“This virtual graduation was great, but I’ve worked hard for 13 years to walk across that stage,” said Rosell. “But if it doesn’t happen, I will be fine.”

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