PHARR — Desteny Duran, the 2020 valedictorian of Thomas Jefferson T-STEM Early College High School, didn’t mention the COVID-19 pandemic once in her commencement address at the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD stadium here Friday evening.
She talked about her friends and her family. She talked about her hopes for herself and her classmates. She talked about the future, and about a bright tomorrow.
Duran wasted no words on the COVID-19 pandemic and she didn’t need to. The pandemic spoke for itself, through the hundreds of facemasks in the crowd, the conspicuous lack of chairs and the smell of hand sanitizer.
Duran didn’t let the pandemic shape her speech, but it certainly shaped the ceremony.
Like other districts attempting to host traditional graduations while observing coronavirus social distancing guidelines, La Joya ISD also planned on holding a ceremony Friday, but canceled due to inclement weather. Mission CISD, meanwhile, held its graduation Friday as well. Earlier on Friday, Mission CISD tweeted photos of its preparations, which included spacing graduates’ chairs 6 feet apart from each other.
Over in Pharr, PSJA implemented a variety of protocols Friday evening designed to allow hundreds of students and their families congregate while slowing the spread of COVID-19.
The ceremony wasn’t what she had envisioned, Duran said, but she was determined not to dwell on that.
“My lipstick’s all smeared, there’s masks everywhere,” Duran said. “I’m just happy that everybody here is safe and healthy but at the end of the day I’m just happy that everyone here is safe and healthy.”
The line to get in the stadium snaked far out into the parking lot Friday, graduates standing with their families in distinct clumps separated by a few feet. They got to the gate and showed one of the district’s employees a QR code with a green checkmark, the results of an online questionnaire meant to weed out anyone who may have the virus before they reached the ceremony.
The next line in the district’s defense was a group of nurses standing under the bleachers, armed with contactless thermometers and bottles of hand sanitizer. The nurses asked a few questions similar to the ones on the online questionnaire before waving the graduates and their guests on to the track.
Duran got lucky. Since she was the valedictorian she was one of about 20 people at the commencement who got to sit. The rest kept standing, lined up in their little groups along the track and off the field. Little orange cones helped keep people from getting too close to each other.
They could hug or socialize or talk much, but Duran said it was nice to see her classmates again, even from a distance.
“It’s been so long since we’ve seen our friends, since we’ve all gotten together,” she said.
The ceremony started with the anthem and a few speeches. Duran rose when it was her time to talk, taking off her face mask and pausing for a moment while a man sprayed down the podium with some sort of sanitizer and wiped it vigorously.
Duran took off her mask and started talking about her friends and her classmates. She was the only person visible not wearing a mask.
“Looking around me I see more than just students. I see friends who will always be remembered. I see selfless individuals who will help others to be the best that they can be. I see innovators who will spark change and advancement,” Duran said. “I see tomorrow’s leaders, doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, scientists and so much more. I see the future. I see the class of 2020.”
Not long after, Duran officially walked the stage. Her classmates followed, pausing for pictures with some of the administration who carefully avoided shaking hands or squeezing in too close. The line of graduates began snaking around the field, following Duran’s path up the stage and off to the other side.
Duran and her family paused for a moment by the back gate. A security guard told them they needed to keep moving along; they could take pictures in the parking lot, he said, but they needed to keep moving so the line of graduates could get out of the stadium and off to the real world.
He was polite, but it was nonetheless a brusque ending to four years of high school.
Duran remained positive.
“There’s so many more positives than the negatives when we live our lives,” she said. “At the end of the day we should still be proud of all our achievements, all that we’ve accomplished in these past four years, and we shouldn’t let a pandemic keep us from celebrating all that we’ve done.”