SKOWHEGAN — High school seniors were able to return to school for one last time Saturday to celebrate graduation.

Skowhegan Area High School held its graduation in-person on Saturday on the school campus.

Students, arriving in groups of six, were first brought under a tent next to the building. Assistant Principal Jason Bellerose greeted students with a quick pep-talk and instructed them on what to do when their graduation time comes.

“Congratulations everyone,” he told the graduates. “Today is your day. It is going to be a lot of fun and I am so proud of you.”

Ceremony planning included school administration, graduation advisors and some students. Due to the pandemic, the school initially considered changing the date of graduation to early August, with hopes that the guidelines set by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention would allow for a bigger ceremony. Skowhegan is part of School Administrative District 54.

“Over the last month, the CDC started opening up more, so I got back with the class advisers and class officers and we had a discussion to consider moving up the date,” Principal Bruce Mochamer previously said. “Most schools in the area are staying close to their original date.”

Abbygale Paquet hugs her mother, Laurie Landry, after receiving her diploma Saturday during graduation at Skowhegan Area High School in Skowhegan. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

The senior class has about 160 students graduating from Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Smithfield and Skowhegan. The ceremony was modified from previous years. Though still in the gymnasium, students enter the school lobby in groups of six. Each student was allotted up to six family members in attendance, and when entering the school lobby, each family is sent to its own area, set up with a photo backdrop and benches. Nearby, a custodian was wiping down and sanitizing surfaces in-between each group.

Valedictorian, salutatorian and class president speeches were all pre-recorded and uploaded to the school’s website on Friday. In the school lobby, photos of the graduates were played in a slideshow on the monitors. Right outside the gymnasium doors, a television was streaming the ceremony taking place inside.

The whole ceremony was recorded and a photographer was there taking photos of each student. A video of the ceremony will be made and posted at some point after the ceremony ends.

“From the very start in August, I was very excited to start my senior year,” salutatorian Emma Duffy, 18, of Skowhegan said. “The pandemic changed everything about how school operated. I think this period of time has made each and every one of us appreciate the small, and big, moments of life and we have grown into better people because of it as a whole.”

Duffy adds that due to the pandemic, her college decision has been postponed, though she does plan to attend a four-year college to study data science and computer science.

“I have tried to have a really positive outlook and continue to look for the silver lining in all difficult situations,” Duffy added.

Class valedictorian Matush Prokop, center, gave a reading during commencement exercises Saturday for Skowhegan Area High School and Bloomfield Academy graduates. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Valedictorian Matush Prokop, 17, of Skowhegan, said this class has shown resilience, tolerance and greatness during its time together, especially when handling the pandemic and navigating through the last-minute changes.

“The last three months have been full of unexpected time to ruminate about our public education as a whole, as well as about recent events,” Prokop said. “In any other year, March 13th would have been around the time where, despite everyone feeling a little lethargic and senioritis become part of every student, that we would one last time pick ourselves up by the bootstraps and push through fourth quarter before coasting through the last few weeks and celebrating.”

Prokop plans to attend the University of Maine in the fall to study chemical engineering.

Upon entering the lobby, graduates and families are greeted by Assistant Principal William Vigue, who gives families their next instructions to enter the gymnasium. There, students are encouraged to take photos in their area with their families. Social distancing was implemented as each family was given its own taped-off square to stand in; each spaced out at least 6 feet, with staff nearby to provide water, face masks and observe.

“I am proud of you,” Vigue told students. “It’s been a tough year, but you made it through. You have overcome a lot of adversity and you’re shining like diamonds.”

On the stage were Board of Directors Chairperson Lynda Quinn, Superintendent Brent Colbry, Mochamer, and Assistant Superintendent Jon Moody.

“I know this wasn’t the graduation you all wanted, but we wanted to give you all one more chance to come back,” Mochamer told students. “Years from now, you will be looking back on this as being the graduating Class of 2020, during a pandemic.”

Families entered the gymnasium one at a time, where they were spaced out and watched graduates walk in. Two students were allowed on the stage at a time, where they had their name announced, picked up their diploma, turned their tassel and had their photos taken. Each group of six had 15 minutes in the gymnasium.

Once groups of graduates finished their ceremony, they exited out the back door of the gymnasium, where members of the Skowhegan Police and Fire departments were waiting to clap and cheer them on.

“We really wanted to get students in here one more time,” Bellerose said. “No other school is really doing anything like this. We spent a lot of time planning and it’s been a lot of fun. This is their moment.”

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