Waiting paid off for El Paso County’s two largest school districts, Academy D-20 and Colorado Springs D-11, which pushed out in-person graduation plans until this week, starting with Air Academy High School.

On Monday, D-20 hosted the first of five live ceremonies at its athletic stadium.

Schedule of Colorado Springs-area graduations in June

“This morning when I walked in, it was so surreal,” Mackie Tate Tygart said before she took the podium as Air Academy's senior speaker. “There’s been so much build-up and mini climaxes, everyone wondered how it would end. It’s a happy day.”

The last few months leading up to high school graduation usually drag out, but this year’s wait seemed interminable, like calculating Pi, students said. But now it's a month after school ended and coronavirus restrictions have eased enough to allow not only modified in-person ceremonies for graduates but also two guests per each participant.

Some local high schools and colleges provided online-only commencement given uncertainties amid the pandemic. Others created alternative outdoor ceremonies but were bound by a variance to provide online ceremonies for those who couldn't attend. D-11 provided videotaped ceremonies on the day of the actual graduation in May and this week will offer in-person ceremonies. D-20 held out on any kind of ceremony until now.

“It’s nice to get some closure,” said Nichole Tygart, Mackie’s mom. “I’m so happy the district managed to pull this off.”

Logistically, it was an epic feat that started a year ago when D-20 officials learned their normal graduation venue, the Air Force Academy’s Clune Arena, would be closed for construction.

No problem, the large New Life Church is in the area, officials said. But some families “weren’t excited about that because it was a church,” Assistant Superintendent Jim Smith said.

Several local districts use The Broadmoor World Arena, which D-20 booked until the pandemic put everything on hold. But a few weeks ago, in-person with a few guests became possible as the governor lifted constraints on public activity.

“It’s been nonstop,” Smith said of the work since then. “Everything’s just a little more complicated.”

The final venue, the districtwide athletic stadium, had clusters of three folding chairs spaced 6 feet apart on the artificial turf. Shorts and tennis shoes replaced fancier outfits and heels.

Bekah Chatterley was glad her twins, John and Julia Chatterley, each received two guest seats. That way, the whole family could attend, she said.

“It’s tough to pick which family members could come, so we were happy the siblings could be here,” Bekah Chatterley said. “It’s something we’ve been looking forward to for 18 years, and we certainly didn’t anticipate anything like this.”

The ceremony was simultaneously live-streamed on the district website, and each graduate also received a video of the event.

To meet social distancing and other health requirements for the 318 graduates, there were just five entrances, temperature checks, six photo booths, an ambulance with nurses, gallons of hand sanitizer and water bottles for all.

Absent were the walk across the stage to receive a diploma, handshakes and hugs. Instead, students stood in place when their name was announced and waved or jumped around.

It was the first time many graduates saw friends and teachers in-person since March 13, the last day of school before the pandemic closed them.

Zoom video conferencing with teachers and other students is not the same as being together in a classroom, Mackie Tygart said.

“It was hard missing that camaraderie with peers and talking with each other,” she said.

Electronic learning at home for the fourth quarter was old hat for graduate Isaac Whitaker, a theater buff who until ninth grade had been homeschooled.

But it wasn’t the same as homeschooling, said his mom, Beth Whitaker, because she wasn’t in charge of the lessons or deadlines.

“It was hard to find the motivation — you feel less accountable when there’s not a teacher in the room,” Isaac Whitaker said. “A month ago, I was thinking it was unbelievable I made it through. I felt a weird, extreme sense of relief.”

Ceremonies will be held every morning this week for D-20’s 1,860 graduating seniors. Discovery Canyon Campus High seniors will attend Tuesday, Liberty High School Wednesday, Pine Creek High is up Thursday and Rampart High on Friday.

Colorado Springs D-11's ceremonies will take place at the district’s Garry Berry Stadium. Roy J. Wasson Academic Campus seniors graduated Monday. Palmer High students will be up Tuesday, Mitchell High on Wednesday, Coronado High will be Thursday and Doherty High on Friday.

Smith expects 70% or more of D-20 seniors at each event. Some families didn’t want to risk potential infection from the virus, he said, others thought it was too late in the year and some preferred to watch it online.

“They had an extremely difficult senior year, and it’s been a hardship,” said Air Academy High Principal Daniel Olson. “We wanted to give this class the sendoff they deserve.”

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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