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Maria Carrillo’s Class of 2020 makes the most of graduation during coronavirus pandemic

It wasn't the synchronized walk around the track and onto the athletic field as “Pomp and Circumstance” played like for graduations past, but rather a long line of cars, idling in the Maria Carrillo High School parking lot, waiting for the moment when each student was given the OK to leave their car and take their spot onstage.

Instead of families gathered in the bleachers, moms and dads clutching balloons and homemade signs, those accoutrements were affixed to vehicles, along with painted messages of good luck for the class of 2020. Prohibited from getting out of their cars, parents stretched out of windows recording the moment on their phones.

There were no handshakes as diplomas were handed to students Friday afternoon as they crossed the stage, and Principal Katie Barr wore gloves. The county health order in light of the coronavirus pandemic put strict requirements on how schools across Sonoma County could mark graduation day and celebrate this senior class.

Maria Carrillo had originally planned for Friday night's event to be less formal. They were calling it a senior celebration and slideshow until the county received the green light to hold drive-thru ceremonies. The staff switched gears immediately and decided to go full-tilt with diploma presentations and many of the other elements of a graduation that staff, students and parents have come to expect over the years.

“Driving through, seeing everyone - I had no idea what to imagine, so this is cool to see it,” an emotional Camilla Conte said. “It feels satisfying. I wasn't expecting it to feel as grand as it did but actually I feel like they did a good job. It was fun to walk across the stage and see everyone watching.

“It's so clear that they are doing the best they can and I feel like they did a good job.”

Patrick Oliver agreed.

“It's definitely a lot in terms of what they can do with separation and whatnot. It's pretty exciting to actually walk across the stage and get the diploma, actually handed and everything,” he said. “It's been super exciting. I think they did a really good job. It's been fun so far.”

This weekend marks the beginning of graduation celebrations for about 5,300 members of the class of 2020 across Sonoma County. Elsie Allen and Santa Rosa High celebrated their seniors Thursday. At Santa Rosa, there was a festive drive-thru party replete with DJ, confetti cannon, dancing and a T-shirt giveaway. Piner High hosted a drive-thru event Thursday in which seniors picked up their caps and gowns and they launched a virtual commencement video Friday night. Montgomery had a drive-thru event Friday along with the airing of a video ceremony. Rancho Cotate, too, aired their virtual commencement video, along with similar efforts from Petaluma and Casa Grande.

Windsor and Cardinal Newman are planning celebrations Saturday, and Healdsburg, Analy and El Molino are scheduled to celebrate next weekend.

For Mayuka Anderson, daughter Audrey's big day at Maria Carrillo was her first graduation as a mom.

“I'm from a different country and I don't have the traditions,” she said. “I'm a little disappointed that we can't have a traditional graduation, but they tried. I'm happy with their effort, they tried to do their best.”

A public address system had “Pomp and Circumstance” playing on loop as a predetermined group of seniors went through the drive-thru in 30-minute intervals. One-by-one the seniors stepped from their cars and, just like traditional graduation, heard their name read over the loudspeaker and ascended the steps to the stage where they received their diploma jacket in front of the MC logo on the gym wall. They were allowed to remove their masks for photographs, taken both by a professional shooter and family members in cars, before descending the stage for another round of photos in front of a Puma backdrop.

The cars then moved to the south end of the parking lot where a slideshow of senior portraits played on a massive screen. On their own time, cars pulled out and drove away. No tassels from right to left, no mortar boards tossed into the air. No speeches.

The class of 2020 spoke of making the best of it and their appreciation for all the effort that had been put in to mark their big day. But there was a slice of sadness, too.

“I think it would definitely be a lot better if could be physically close to all my friends while I'm graduating,” Oliver said. “And the speeches would have definitely be a huge part. And I'm in the choir at my school so we would have been singing a song and whatnot, so it's definitely a bummer to miss all of that but this is a good substitute.”

The actual stage was the selling point for senior Ryan Murgatroyd.

“It was pretty cool honestly. I would have rather had an in-person graduation on the field but it was the best we could do and they put on a great graduation,” he said. “It was cool how they had the stage as they would on the field up there; it almost made it feel like it was a normal graduation in these weird times.”

Getting the diploma case - the real one can be picked up later - was the key for Alejandro Rodriguez.

“At least we had a graduation. It's kind of emotional,” he said, sitting in a convertible with his three sisters and his mom. “I'm happy. I actually did it.”

Sitting in the passenger seat of the family car with her diploma case in hand, Haley Joerger spotted Emma Huntsinger five spaces away in the parking lot where both families were watching the senior slideshow. Joerger immediately shed tears.

“I couldn't run up and give her a hug,” she said, noting they hadn't seen each other in person since shelter in place went into effect in March. “And she's my best friend.”

The coming together of classmates and teachers, even under these circumstances, brought home all that they were missing, she said.

“You miss everything and the way life was before quarantine,” she said.

The emotions of the day got to Conte, too.

“I'm just so grateful that they have been trying so hard throughout this whole process,” she said. “It's hard to say goodbye but I love seeing everyone. It's just a big combination of everything, I guess.”

But like other seniors, Conte said she was trying to find positives and things she can learn in these unprecedented times.

“I'm definitely going to be more appreciative of the moment. I'm going to do my best to do that for the rest of my life,” Conte said. “I don't know if you can experience this without realizing that, almost.”

Oliver, a member of the Carrillo choir, had been looking forward to the group singing a song at the graduation. They were going to sing “See You Again” by Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth. It was a fitting pick that ends with these lyrics:

“So let the light guide your way, hold every memory,

As you go and every road you take will always lead you home

It's been a long day without you, my friend

And I'll tell you all about it when I see you again.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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