CUYAHOGA FALLS — High school and district leaders said this year’s unique graduation celebration was successful and memorable.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced high schools throughout the state to drop their customary in-person commencement ceremonies and host those programs virtually.
On Tuesday, Cuyahoga Falls High School’s virtual commencement aired on the district’s YouTube channel. Earlier that same day, members of the Class of 2020 and their families participated in a "Honk-Out" parade at Blossom Music Center.
"I believe both our graduates and the greater Black Tiger community were happy with how they were able to connect with each other even though we were apart," said Kevin Vargyas, associate principal at Cuyahoga Falls High School. "The feedback that I have been provided has only been positive. The emails and text messages that the administrative team have received have almost all been focused on how professional our ceremony was, how much they loved the photos that we provided, [and] how special the graduates and their families felt."
Vargyas added he felt it meant "a lot" to graduates and their families that school officials never changed the date and time of the ceremony. The virtual ceremony was aired at the same day and time that was planned for the in-person program at Blossom.
"We didn’t want our community or graduates sitting at home on the 19th at 7 p.m thinking about where they were supposed to be or what was taken away from them," said Vargyas. "We wanted our graduates to be with their loved ones and we wanted their loved ones to be watching along with them."
He noted he felt family members of graduates appreciated being able to watch their child walk across the auditorium stage to collect their diploma during the videotaping of the program a couple weeks ago.
Vargyas added that the parade which occurred earlier that same day still allowed graduates to go to Blossom. He called the parade a "tremendous success," with more than 300 vehicles participating.
"Every vehicle in the parade featured at least one graduate," said Vargyas."Although we did not take attendance, I am confident in saying that almost every graduate participated."
Factoring in about 700 additional vehicles that lined the parade route, Vargyas said that more than 1,000 people attended.
After seeing how students and families enjoyed the parade, Cuyahoga Falls Board of Education President Karen Schofield said she thought high school administrators should "seriously consider making [the graduation parade] an annual event. It was just a joyous occasion."
Cuyahoga Falls City School District Superintendent Dr. Todd Nichols, whose son Anthony is a member of the Class of 2020, said the parade "just warmed my heart. It was amazing."
Cuyahoga Falls-based InFocus Studios produced the commencement ceremony video. Tim Frankish, who owns the company, was the lead camera person and editor for the program, said Vargyas. He added that Frankish is "also a proud parent and resident."
As of Wednesday night, Vargyas said the virtual ceremony "has been played nearly 5,000 times," and, knowing that nearly every graduate watched the program with others, he estimated that more than 20,000 people have watched the program so far.
Nichols praised the school district staff, graduates and their families.
"They made the very, very best out of a very, very bad situation," stated Nichols, who added it was "emotional" for him to watch the program with his son.
In his commencement speech, Nichols said that for the past several years, his district faculty told him "you will love" the Class of 2020.
"They are really great people," Nichols said, recalling what his teachers and administrators had told him about this group of seniors. "This class is replete with good kid after good kid."
Nichols, speaking as both a superintendent and a parent, became emotional when he shared his message to the seniors: "In a sense, you have become my quasi sons and daughters. You are my class. There will never be another like the Class of 2020."
Cuyahoga Falls High School senior Zayen Comedy said it would be an "understatement" to say that his class’s senior year "was rough." Comedy offered a positive and hopeful message.
"We are standing on the precipice of a new beginning," stated Comedy. "One that, although may be plagued with the fear of the unknown, is also filled with the joys of discovering new things that we could’ve never possibly imagined."
Senior Abigail Eggleton said the events of the past months were "not we wanted, expected or deserved, but we are willing to make these sacrifices while understanding the reasoning behind them." She also made a point of highlighting some of the memorable moments of the past school year: watching teacher karaoke, being late to class due to being stuck in hallway traffic, the football team’s season opening victory, and dancing at Homecoming.
"As we go our separate ways, I hope that we will continue to use our experience from CFHS to enhance our vision," said Eggleton. "And no matter how far apart we may be from one another right now, our hearts are all in the same place."
The ceremony also included performances of "America the Beautiful" by senior members of the Cuyahoga Falls High School Band and of the school alma mater by senior members of the school’s A Cappella Choir. Each graduate walked up to the podium on the high school’s auditorium stage, announced their name, walked to another spot and turned their tassel.
The program concluded with a senior class video and faculty announcing the winners of prizes in a raffle.
Vargyas thanked everyone who was involved with the production of the video and the organization of the parade.
"Countless Black Tigers volunteered to do whatever it took to make May 19, 2020, one of the best days in the history of Cuyahoga Falls City Schools," said Vargyas.
Reporter Phil Keren can be reached at 330-541-9421, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @keren_phil.