The Paul Duke STEM High School is a theme school that focuses on technology, but Principal John Wetherington said that focus was not expected to carry over to the school’s first-ever graduation ceremony even if it was, in a way, fitting for the school.

The school — which did not have a senior class until this school year — was one of the first Gwinnett County schools to hold its graduation ceremonies Wednesday. Due to the COVID-19 novel coronavirus pandemic, however, the ceremonies were done virtually and broadcast online rather than conducted in person.

“As a technology-focused STEM school, we have emphasized learning through and with technology since our opening,” Wetherington said at the beginning of the ceremony. “Therefore, it’s no surprise that our graduation ceremony would leverage technology to provide a unique experience for our student and families. However, when we opened almost two years ago, no one would have predicted a virtual graduation ceremony.

“The unique circumstance of the last three months have provided an extraordinary challenge to us all, yet our students, teachers and community have shown tremendous character, perseverance and resilience throughout the last 43 days of digital learning.”

Wednesday marked the first-ever graduation ceremonies for Paul Duke STEM High School and McClure Health Science High School. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, each school had to mark the milestone with virtual ceremonies instead of the traditional affairs that would have included graduating seniors marching in to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance” and walking across a stage to receive their diplomas.

Such is life in the age of COVID-19.

“Many things can be said about your senior year of high school,” Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said in videotaped remarks included in the online proceedings. “Perhaps the most memorable happening, yet the least desirable one, has been the COVID-19 pandemic that has impacted all of our lives and, yes, our world.

“This virus changed where and how you completed your senior year. Rather than at school, you experienced teaching and learning at home. I have yet to talk with anyone, a senior student, a parent or teacher who preferred that situation rather than students being able to finish their senior year at school.”

The unusual way the school year ended was a theme that ran through both ceremonies.

McClure High School Principal Nicole Mosley echoed Wetherington’s sentiments about the unexpectedness of a virtual graduation as she opened her own school’s first-ever graduation ceremony Wednesday.

“As we began our inaugural year last August, I think we all expected to have many new experiences and surprises that would allow us to waken the wonder,” Mosley said. “But, I don’t think any of us could have predicted that we would be holding our very first graduation ceremony virtually.

“Although the end of this school year has looked much different than your previous 12 school years, it is just one of the many firsts that you have experienced as the first graduating class of McClure Health Science High School.”

As Gwinnett County Board of Education Chairwoman Louise Radloff addressed graduates in a video played during McClure’s ceremony, she noted the fact that the school system has never done a virtual graduation before.

“This is your special day, one you will always remember, not so much for the significance of the occasion, but for the fact that you graduated virtually, the first class ever, in the year 2020,” Radloff said. “You will be in the history books. The fact that you are wearing the cap and gown and you have completed the course work is what makes this day special for you and your family.”

Graduating seniors waxed poetic about the experiences they did get to have as a student body before in-school instruction was suspended, forcing the students to finish their K-12 academic careers from home.

“McClure is our new home,” McClure High School salutatorian Tanya Rodriguez said. “It’s where we made new lifelong friendships and shared so many unforgettable memories even if it was cut short due to this pandemic we are in. I know we didn’t get to have a senior breakfast or prom, but we were able to share many other experiences together.

“We have spent all school year eating breakfast together every morning when we arrived at school. We shared laughs and jokes together. We also got the opportunity to go to Netherworld together and even an escape room. We spent a night together screaming while watching a scary movie and we had to watch a funny movie afterwards so we wouldn’t get paranoid. It’s important to remember the memories we had already made.”

Paul Duke High School Valedictorian Chunjin Park said he used the last two months as an opportunity to evaluate his experiences at the school, and how the class of 2020 helped open the school in 2018.

“This year has truly been unconventional times,” Park said. “We’re entering the world as adults as the world is facing the biggest pandemic and economic crisis of our generation. The waves impact us, shifting our society as we know it and unlike the current year 2020’s name suggests, our future seems to be murkier than ever.

“However, we can chose to be afraid, or we could chose to overcome this fear and boldly embrace this new world, just as we embraced our new school.”

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I'm a Crawford Long baby who grew up in Marietta and eventually wandered to the University of Southern Mississippi for college. Earned a BA in journalism (double minor in political science and history). Previously worked in Florida and Clayton County.

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