South San High School senior Donovan David Ricondo eagerly had awaited the first time someone asked him in what year he would graduate. He planned to respond, smoothly, “Class of 2020.”

“It just sounds cool,” Ricondo said Tuesday night in his valedictorian’s speech, addressing hundreds of classmates and family members at Alamo Stadium. “Unfortunately, no one will be thinking about how cool our graduating year sounds because all they will remember was that 2020 was the year that the world changed.”

Other numbers might come to mind when thinking about the class’ senior year: 50, the number of days students spent learning from home instead of in their classrooms because of the global coronavirus pandemic, or six, the number of feet apart that each student’s group of two permitted guests had to sit at the class of 2020’s commencement ceremony.

When Principal Lee Hernández took the microphone, he brought up more numbers that he said signify the class of 2020’s resilience in such unprecedented circumstances: the 65 percent of classmates who will attend a higher-education institution, the three peers who will go to school out of state, the 13 students who will enlist in the armed forces, the 1,600 college hours earned while still in high school, and the $9.8 million earned in college scholarships.

“This school year is definitely one to remember,” Hernández said. “Many questions are still left unanswered and some of those answers will come from the decisions you make in the near future.”

Under stadium lights normally reserved for Friday nights, about 500 high school seniors crossed the stage at midfield, swapping handshakes and hugs for fist bumps and elbow taps. Many of the typical elements of a graduation ceremony were present – seniors still decorated their mortarboards with inspirational messages, proud family members wore custom T-shirts to celebrate their students, and the announcer still proclaimed each senior’s name over the stadium’s speakers.

New South San ISD Superintendent (left) Marc Puig fist-bumps a graduate receiving his diploma. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Some aspects differed out of necessity, though. Gov. Greg Abbott gave school districts permission to hold outdoor ceremonies starting May 29 and several local districts began planning to take advantage of the allowance. They had to follow a set of rules that included capping the number of attendees, conducting COVID-19 health screenings for all participants, and offering hand-washing stations at all entrances. Big red stickers with the words “Please Sit Here” represented the amount of space required for appropriate social distancing.

As a result of State guidance, only two family members per graduate could attend. The district told other supporters to watch the ceremony as it was broadcast online. Some not able to attend peeked over the walls of Alamo Stadium to watch their students cross the stage.

Supporters of a South San graduate hold up signs in the Alamo Stadium parking lot. Only two guests per graduate were permitted to attend the ceremony. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Graduates lined up in the parking lot about an hour and a half before the ceremony, standing on spray-painted white dots that kept each person 6 feet away from the next. Some graduates and attendees wore masks, but most did not on the more than 90-degree summer day.

Wearing a blue dress and matching pair of shoes picked out to complement her cap and gown, Madisyn Donovan was one of the hundreds who stood idling in the parking lot before the ceremony. She admitted she had no idea what the ceremony would look like – State guidance didn’t permit any rehearsal ceremonies.

“Pomp and Circumstance,” recorded by the high school band, began playing over the loadspeakers, and seniors filed into the stadium in groups, slowly finding their folding chairs, already spaced an appropriate distance apart. In total, the walk into the stadium took about 30 minutes, the music looping over and over.

“These four years have been a whirlwind of emotions, erratic sleeping schedules, and new experiences,” salutatorian Lourdes Esmerelda Izarraras-Medina said, addressing her peers. “We South San’s class of 2020 did it despite the unfavorable circumstances life threw at us.”

Even with the uncertainty leading up to graduation, many seniors were just as happy, if not more so, to accept their diploma Tuesday evening. After crossing the stage, broad smiles stretched across the faces of the new graduates.

With the sky black, minus a few bursts of fireworks shot off the top of a nearby parking garage during the reading of the names, students returned to their seats and awaited the quintessential graduation moment: sweeping their mortarboard tassels from right to left and throwing their caps in the air.

When no one gave express directions to do so, students started to call out “tassel” and signal to their classmates it was time. Hundreds of caps flew into the air, falling in most cases just a few feet away from the hands that released them.

A South San graduate flings her cap into the air as the class of 2020’s journey through high school comes to an end. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The majority of students will head to new schools next year and face further uncertainty amid a global pandemic and ensuing economic downturn. But with this chapter over, graduates departed the Alamo Stadium field Tuesday night, leaving at first in orderly lines, then less so. Graduates clumped together with friends, snapping selfies, many beaming they had made it through high school.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.