Sonoma County high schools turn to videos, virtual ceremonies to honor grads

Faith Harvey is finding the bright side. The coronavirus bought her time.

Harvey, vice president of the senior class council at Rancho Cotate High School, has since nearly the beginning of the academic year been tasked with creating the traditional senior-class slide show. For years, Rancho has celebrated its graduates, and the other classes, in a rally where each class physically moves from one spot in the gym to another to represent their advancement to the next grade.

A slide show set to music has always been part of the Move Up rally. It was scheduled for April 24. It obviously did not happen.

The coronavirus pandemic ended in-person classes for Rancho Cotate and every other North Bay school back in March, so the rally wasn't the only thing that got nixed. Prom, senior picnic, senior sunset - all canceled. Graduation? For Rancho Cotate, that will happen a week later than planned, in a June 5 drive-thru event in which students will exit their vehicles at the Rohnert Park campus, pick up their diploma jacket from a table, pose for a picture and drive away.

Rancho's traditional commencement was supposed to happen Friday. Officials worked to honor that date, so a “virtual commencement” will air on the school's various social media accounts as well as on YouTube at 6 p.m. Friday night, replete with student and staff speeches, a roll call of names - and a senior slide show.

Harvey has been putting in long hours to make that presentation special, trying to craft something bigger, to capture the moment she and her classmates are in.

“My poor little computer is about to overheat,” she said.

And she is not alone in that mad dash to honor the class of 2020, with students and staff at high schools around the North Bay collectively doing a massive pivot to virtual ceremonies and other year-end activities when it was clear that many of their in-person moments and rituals would be curtailed by pandemic safeguards.

School communities have turned their attention to technology, creating virtual ceremonies where students and families, sequestered in their homes instead of gathered on bleachers around athletic fields, can watch something like a graduation.

Petaluma High put together a tribute that will air this weekend. So did Casa Grande and Windsor High. At Maria Carrillo High a video will run on a giant screen in the parking lot during Friday's drive-thru graduation, the first for a high school campus in the county.

The students and staff behind the videos are trying to capture the sentiment and significance of a milestone for local youth that would normally be marked together.

“It's big,” filmmaking teacher Jason Dawe, who is heading up the team producing Rancho's graduation video. “I feel so bad for the seniors and on my end I want to do something that is worthwhile.”

“It's their graduation. I want it to be something that sticks out and is worth remembering,” he said.

Dawe, who started working on the project in mid- to late April, said there was no road map for the project. And time was tight.

“So we started with the program from the year prior and kind of went down the list and said, ‘What do we need to have to create a virtual program?'?” he said. “This has a lot of the same pieces as the traditional ceremony.”

He leaned heavily on input and work from members of the senior leadership class, who were committed to making something memorable.

”You could tell they were bummed but they realized the situation and I feel like they accepted it really quickly,” he said. “They are so impressive.”

Speakers - students, staff and teachers - had to record their talks solo then send the final piece to Dawe.

“We have a big, giant shared Google drive and everyone is contributing their piece,” Dawe said.

About 70% of Rancho's roughly 400 seniors met the three-day turnaround for submitting their cap-and-gown portraits.

A select group of seniors, including Harvey, recorded readings of the names of every member of the senior class. That audio will coincide with images of each senior - their moment on stage, so to speak.

And then there will be the slide show. Harvey took the extra month allowed by the cancellation of the April 24 rally and went big.

“Honestly, it worked out in my favor,” she said. “I had a lot more time to plan out songs, plan out transitions.”

She was deliberate about her music choices: “Don't Dream It's Over,” by Crowded House; “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” by Tears for Fears; and “Stop This Train” by John Mayer.

She also added new elements - soliciting not just senior portraits, but baby pictures and embarrassing shots from middle school.

“I think it was fun to watch something grow - it's like the slide show is aging kind of,” she said.

The extra month also gave her more time to track down photos from classmates who were less inclined to share or participate in a school-sponsored anything.

This is it, she thought. Everybody needs to be here.

“I hope people do feel a little sad, that means that I captured the energy correctly,” she said. “I hope people get emotional with it and remember the good times, those moments of ‘Oh my gosh, I remember that.' I hope that really it's a nostalgia feeling in a way.”

Her first audience, her mom, Clarissa, was moved.

“She cried, so I was like ‘I did good,'?” Harvey said.

Ryan Shepherd, a Rancho teacher, also turned to a parent for feedback.

Shepherd has been a teacher at Rancho for a quarter century. For nearly all of those years, campus folks say, he's been asked by seniors to give the teacher commencement speech. Every year he has demurred, uneasy about affixing words to a particular class or doling out what can feel like platitudes if not earnestly felt.

But this year, he asked his own dad: Should he do it? The answer came: “You'd better buck up for these kids.”

So Shepherd did. He bought a green screen and filmed himself in front of a series of assorted images from campus life. He wore a tie. His 8-minute speech about the class of 2020 wrote itself.

“I really dug this class and I was proud of them and felt like it was time for me to step up and let them know,” he said. “They wrote the speech themselves with their actions. I felt less pressure than ever before. I really said what I feel. These kids have been through floods and fires and practicing for armed intruders at school and COVID and they just keep dusting themselves off and marching on. They inspired me. For me it was easy.”

His message? Life has been turned upside down, but the class of 2020 can take the helm and help right the ship.

“There are two ways to look at this situation. One is to find excuses and, I don't know, cower, and another is to go after it,” he said.

“I can think of no other group I'd rather have answer the bell,” he said.

You can reach staff writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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