Southwest Open School in Cotrez held a graduation ceremony for its 20 seniors Friday evening, delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and event restrictions.
Matthew Keefauver, director of the charter high school, said the students “felt like it was really important that they were together” for their graduation before they moved on.
The administration worked with the Montezuma County Public Health Department on the commencement. It was originally scheduled for May, but uncertainty about spread of the pandemic prevented school gatherings.
Up to four members of a household sat together in the audience on the soccer field, 6 feet apart. Students also were 6 feet apart and wore masks with SWOS lettering.
“It’s so different from what other schools have done,” Keefauver said.
The school’s small size permitted the ceremony, whereas larger schools held drive-in or online graduations.
“We are absolutely thrilled that we are able to have a ceremony,” said parent Libby York.
Her daughter, Alexandra York, started at Southwest Open School three years ago. She took over the role of senior class president, Keefauver said, and was a student representative and communications liaison between administration and students for commencement.
Michelle Neal said she was grateful to the teachers and staff for putting the graduation together for students like her son, Jett Neal.
“We’re so proud of him and so proud the graduation is being held outside,” Michelle Neal said.
Mark Wing and the Red Sky Group played a traditional honor song for the students, then Alexandra York gave a speech to her class.
She said the hard part for their class should have been over, so “Why are we going through this” pandemic shutdown?
But reflecting on her time at Southwest Open School, York said the students “conquered mountain tops that now that you look back, seem like hills.”
“When it feels like you’ve been buried, think instead that you’ve been planted,” York said.
Senior Marissa Moore, who gave some closing remarks, reflected on when she was scared to speak up in a group full of students.
“Now look at me,” Moore said. The Southwest Open School allowed her to push boundaries, she said.
Ed Whritner gave a speech to the graduating class of 2020, as well. He was a humanities teacher at the high school for several years before becoming the head of project-based learning in Mancos.
“This is sort of a homecoming for him, he had some of the students when they were younger,” Keefauver said.
Graduation is not just the end of a four-year segment of your lives, Whritner told the students, “It is a culmination of 13 years of growth.”
“We forget what an accomplishment graduating from high school is,” he said.
Students also did an “honor walk” in front of the school so relatives who couldn’t sit in the audience could still see part of the ceremony.
“We are trying to make it as traditional as possible,” Keefauver said.
However, there were key differences between the 2020 graduating class’s ceremony and some from previous years. Student advisers normally hand their students a gag gift and explain it to the audience during the ceremony, but Keefauver said they were unable to pass a microphone between that many people.
And the gag gifts were placed on a table with a written explanation for students to pick up as they left.
Normally, the microphone is passed to the audience so friends and family can say some words for the typically small class as well, but the administration is trying to reduce contact points to avoid spreading the virus.
At the end of the ceremony, Keefauver said he was impressed that the students voted to wait until now for their graduation, instead of having a drive-in ceremony. It is a testimony to their connection to their teachers and each other, he said.