The strange virtual graduation of 2020 — the year COVID-19 shut school buildings and sent education online — is happening with Ridgefield High School seniors socially distanced in their cars.

And rather than celebrating together all night long at the traditional post graduation party, they’re going home to watch the event the next night on computer screens with their families.

“We’re forever united by this,” said Matthew Sorgie, RHS student government president. “We’ll never forget this because it was such a strange thing to happen to us.

“We missed our senior prom, our grad moments — we’re having a drive-in graduation, but we usually have the in-person event at WestConn, we’re missing that,” he said.

The 380 seniors graduate Thursday, June 18, in two ceremonies — half the class at noon and half the class at 2:30.

The speakers — viewed on large screens by students from their cars in the high school parking lot — are expected to include Senior Class President Clodagh Ryan, Valedictorian Questin McQuilkin, Class Speaker Krya Linekin, and Matthew Sorgie, the student government president.

The virtual graduation will be available to graduates and their families through a shared link beginning at 4 p.m. on Friday, June 19.

Class members picked up their diplomas last Friday, June 12, in a daylong drive-by event where graduates could pose for photos with a cardboard cutout of retiring RHS principal Stacey Gross.

Different, difficult

Thursday’s drive-in graduation in the high school parking lot will cap what has been a different and at times difficult second half to the students’ senior year.

“I think for the first couple of months — March, April, May — it was really tough. We did miss prom, post grad party,” said Matthew Sorgie, the student government president.

As the projected date for a return to school kept being rescheduled, the reality began to dawn on seniors that much of what they’d been looking forward to might not happen.

“It got pushed back and pushed back, and then it became clear,” Matthew said.

“It felt like you had it, and it slowly got taken away,” he said. “It was just kind of a bizarre feeling waiting to go back and then not being able to.”

School buildings were closed March 12, a Thursday, and school became “distance learning” from home.

“We started out with just a rough 10-day work packet, and after that it was kind of like weekly assignments,” Matthew said. “I think kids slowly transitioned into that, figured out a schedule that worked for them.

“It’s hard when you’re not in a classroom environment to kind of motivate yourself, but considering it happened so suddenly we did the best we could,” he said.

Long planned senior internships with local businesses were canceled.

School life

Seniors missed school life, so much of it non-academic.

“College decision day, when everyone comes to school in their T-shirts,” Matthew said.

“Spring sports. Kids wanted to go to the games and root on their friends” he said. “I think that was really frustrating for a lot of kids.

“Kids were really upset,” he said. “They were supposed to do Legally Blonde for the RHS musical this year. Their opening night I think was supposed to be the week that school started to get shut down.”

With schools closing Thursday, students tried to “throw just kind of a come-if-you-can musical on the Wednesday,” Matthew said.

“Kids went on Wednesday night to try to see the show, and the administration didn’t want to let anybody in,” he said. “So many seniors went. You want to support your friends.”

Overall, Matthew said the school administration had worked hard and done an admirable job under the trying circumstances.

“It’s really impressive,” he said. “...They really want to celebrate with us, the amount of hours they’ve put into this is really amazing.”

Administrators’ praise

The high school’s administrators expressed their admiration for the graduating class — and the way they’d handled their unusual senior year — in statements sent to The Press.

“It has been an honor and a privilege to serve as advisers to the extraordinary group of students that is the Class of 2020,” said Class Advisers Ashley Brooksbank and Eileen Stewart. “They will be remembered at Ridgefield High School not just for their academic and extra-curricular successes (which were many), but also for their positive outlook, resilience, and class spirit.

“Even in the midst of these historic circumstances, they continue to act as leaders for our school by finding new ways to celebrate each other's achievements, embracing new experiences, and finding opportunities to give back to their community. They are truly loved, and they will be deeply missed.”

“While we all hoped to have more time with this group of incredible students, we will hold the Class of 2020 close to our hearts,” said Molly Kreitz, interim assistant principal for the 12th grade. “They have made a lasting impression at Ridgefield High School with their commitment and dedication to their academics, and their contributions to the RHS community through athletics, art, music, theater and service clubs.

“The perseverance and ability to overcome obstacles demonstrated over the past four years, but especially during this unprecedented time, will serve them well as they move to the next chapter of their lives,” Kreitz said. “I wish them great success in the future.”

Dr. Stacey Gross, who is retiring as Ridgefield High School Principal, found kindness of the class.

“Although we are ending this year very differently than we had expected, it does not dampen the incredible role the Class of 2020 has played at Ridgefield High School!” she said. “They are enthusiastic, intelligent, athletic, and committed to community service.

“Moreover, as a class as a whole, they are kind, sensitive and incredibly altruistic,” she said. “The camaraderie and resilience they have shown during these extraordinary circumstances is noteworthy. I am confident they will experience much success as they enter the worlds of post-secondary education, the military or work. I wish them much happiness and luck as they pursue their future dreams.”