Anchorage high school seniors begin pandemic-style pomp and circumstance ceremonies

Eagle River High School Senior Class President Brooks Christian gives his graduation speech on video for a virtual graduation in May 2020. No graduations could be held in person this year due to the social distancing guidelines. (youTube screenshot)

The Anchorage School District shifted 20 graduation ceremonies online this year.

And while school communities can’t gather in person, festivities acknowledging the senior class began last week.

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Planning a graduation for hundreds of high school seniors and their families is a logistical challenge, even for someone who’s been doing it for over a decade. Just ask Iris Korzon.

Korzon is a math teacher at Eagle River High School and the school’s graduation coordinator.

After 11 years of planning graduation, Korzon said she’s pretty much got the process down – putting in flower orders with the florist, finalizing the list of honor grads, making sure the confetti cannons are operational. But, as with so many other events, the pandemic changed everything.

A memo from the state department of education in late April said that graduation ceremonies had to be less than 20 people and no physical contact.

RELATED: What it’s like to graduate from UAA during a global pandemic

So, at Eagle River and just about all other high schools in the district, graduation had to go virtual.

Now, the ceremony consists of a video featuring speeches from the school principal, senior class president, and student speaker.

Every school in the district that’s having a graduation ceremony will make one that will air in the coming days. Eagle River’s video premiered last week.

Graduating senior Ala’a Sheikh said she was really looking forward to graduation. But the video wasn’t quite what she had hoped for.

“I feel like they could’ve called our name and showed our picture,” she said. “But they didn’t do that, so I feel like I didn’t really have a graduation experience.”

Sheikh said she’s hoping to be able to have a graduation party in June if possible, but wishes she could have shared the moment with the rest of her classmates.

Ala’a Sheik graduated from Eagle River High School in May 2020. While school buildings closed down she started her own lash company. “It feels like a new chapter in my life is about to start,” she said of her graduation. (Facebook photo)

“When they cancelled graduation everything got really real. It just seemed like I never even went to school,” she said. “I didn’t get a goodbye, and I never got to see some of my friends again, and I’m definitely not going to be able to see some of my teachers again, so that was kind of sad.”

Sheikh said despite some disappointment, this is a moment that defines her class and she’s looking forward to getting the graduation experience from her college commencement.

RELATED: Shocked and confused, high school seniors navigate a school year cut short by the coronavirus

In addition to the video, Eagle River has been featuring the senior class on social media and seniors can share a bit about themselves and their experience.

There, Sheikh wrote she “has learned that you should never say “I’ll do it tomorrow” because you may never get the chance to do what you wanted to tomorrow because life doesn’t always work that way.”

Another senior, Aiyanna Claw, wrote the pandemic really changed her perspective. One day she was getting lunch with friends and the next, she was stuck in the house.

Claw said the majority of her family lives in Arizona. Most were planning to travel to Anchorage for her graduation, but that couldn’t happen.

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She said her immediate family has been finding ways to celebrate her at home.

“My mom is a very festive person” she said. “She has been there helping me create grad announcements, and taking pictures.”

Claw said even though she’s disappointed, she will definitely have a story to tell when she gets older. And, she appreciates the efforts the entire community is making to help seniors feel special.

Aiyanna Claw graduated from Eagle River High School in Anchorage May 2020. Her favorite quote is “Over the hill between your shoulders,” which her grandpa shared with her to show that nothing, not even her goals, are as far away as they may seem. “Now, I will go on a trip or I will dye my hair. I’ll do what I want because I don’t know how fast things are going to change.” (Facebook photo)

Korzon said administrators will celebrate the class with other virtual media.

They’ll also do a walk-thru ceremony for students when they go to school to pick up their diploma covers. Staff will be in full graduation regalia, and students can get their pictures taken in their cap and gown.

Every school will have a website they can customize with photos and videos unique to their students. Each school will also have yard signs, honor cords, certificates, customizable memorabilia boxes, and other items for graduates when they go to pick up their diploma covers.

But, a video or a socially-distant ceremony isn’t quite the same as teachers handing out hugs, handshakes, and high-fives to a class of students they’ve watched grow up.

That’s a part of the ceremony that couldn’t be replicated and an aspect everyone is missing, Korzon said.

“You have those kids that just we had to drag across the finish line saying, ‘Come on, you can do this. You can do this.’ And even the kids that are the real high fliers, the ones that are the valedictorian, and I had a part in that” she said. “To see them walk across that stage, as a teacher, it’s a sense of accomplishment.”

Each of the Anchorage School District’s 20 virtual graduations will be posted on the district’s YouTube channel and broadcast on Channel 11 KTVA news.

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