There was a time when it looked like Lake Dallas High School seniors may not get to formally celebrate reaching the end of their long academic journey.
The COVID-19 pandemic had forced the cancellation of previously scheduled graduation ceremonies at the University of North Texas, and seniors were faced with the possibility of not getting to walk the stage.
But when Texas Motor Speedway, Denton County and local school districts reached an agreement to have the ceremonies at TMS, suddenly that special moment was back on.
The students, families and administrators were thankful for it.
“The fact that this was at Texas Motor Speedway was really cool,” said Lake Dallas High School graduate Lauryn Pennington. “It was out of the ordinary. Seeing all the cars there and all the support we received, it was a little overwhelming. But I was happy with the outcome.”
District administrators were glad to provide that special moment for their seniors.
“To be able to provide an opportunity for the students to celebrate this occasion together was heartwarming,” said Superintendent Gayle Stinson. “Until you see a graduate walk towards you at the finish line, with tears in their eyes, and whisper ‘thank you for making this happen,’ you really don’t understand the impact you’ve made. Our whole team worked to move mountains for these kids, and we would do it all over again and again. It was momentous.”
TMS was used because of its large footprint and ability to provide social distancing. Students sat 6 feet part on the race track during the ceremony.
Video of the ceremony was played on “Big Hoss,” TMS’ 12-story, 218-foot wide video screen.
“My favorite part was sitting in the chairs with my friends, 6 feet apart, and looking at the screen and cheering for everyone,” Pennington said. “It was fun to be with everyone.”
Families parked in the infield, and they honked their horns – or air horns brought from home – once their graduate’s name was called out.
“No other class can say they walked across the track and were on the big screen to get their diplomas,” Pennington said.
Throughout the day, safety measures were in place.
From the time they exited their vehicles, district staff monitored health screenings and ensured that everyone had a mask. Students and staff wore masks, were directed to maintain 6-foot social distancing at all times, and during the ceremony graduates were also seated 6 feet apart. When they crossed the finish line, they picked up their own diplomas rather than have them handed to them and no one shook hands or hugged.
“It was different, but safe,” Stinson said. “And undoubtedly well received.”
Stinson said the system worked well.
“First, it worked because it was an incredibly important evening for the students, and they were willing to comply with state and county regulations to make it happen,” Stinson said. “Second, the district had more than 60 adults on hand to monitor, organize and shepherd our students before, during and after the ceremony.”
Stinson said the biggest challenge was not having the ability to practice before the ceremony since it took place in a new venue.
“Additionally, we had to pivot within a very short timeframe,” she said. “Finding out the speedway was an option and moving to make it reality was an incredibly quick turnaround. But the biggest challenge of all was no handshakes or hugs – I missed the normal interaction.”
But while the ceremony was different, it’s that uniqueness defined this year’s class.
“I will look back at how strong the Class of 2020 is,” Pennington said. “We got through this together. Not just the students but the staff. They made some tough decisions, but looking back we’ll see that we were stronger together.”