PALMER — The Palmer High School class of 2020 will not walk 189 students across a stage in the Palmer High School gymnasium for each graduating senior to receive their diploma in person due to the coronavirus pandemic. Despite the lacking physical graduation ceremony, residents in Palmer are working as a community to make sure that the accomplishments of the 189 Palmer High grads are not forgotten along with the chaos of COVID-19.
“A thread just started on the buzz page about this project,” Palmer Mayor Edna DeVries said, referring to Frontiersman Palmer Buzz columnist Barbara Hunt’s Facebook page.
Along South Colony Way and South Alaska Street in the heart of downtown Palmer, banners with each of Palmer High’s seniors are displayed along the busiest street in town. On Monday, cars slowly rolled up and down the streets, looking for their loved ones in the banners and taking videos of the string of seniors. DeVries said that parents began organizing after a post on the Palmer Alaska Buzz Facebook page started gaining attention.
“The people in Palmer are more active really, and are more active in each other’s lives even if it’s people that they don’t’ know just because they’re from Palmer and Palmer sort of takes care of their own,” said DeVries. “When there’s something going on people rally behind it.”
On Saturday, Palmer seniors, parents and community members rallied at the Alaska State Fair parking lot, parking hundreds of cars along the pavement pathway to Hermon Brothers Field. Grads were able see their loved ones and be seen and recognized for their hard work in completing their high school education. Prior to their virtual graduation ceremony on Tuesday at 7 p.m. that will be streamed by the school district on MatSu TV, students were able to physically see the community support around them. The 189 graduates from Palmer are the most in the Mat-Su Borough School District this year.
“I know this is not the graduation that you’ve seen of others and maybe even the graduation that you had envisioned for yourself for this year, but you certainly have done your graduation your way and I think as you look back on it they will just really appreciate the town because now everybody in the community will be reminded that it is graduation time,” said DeVries.
DeVries said that the celebration of the PHS class of 2020 by the community is a big deal and thanked outgoing City Manager Nathan Wallace and the Palmer Public Works Department for orchestrating the request and setting up each banner that lines Alaska Street and Colony Way. Though school was closed for the remainder of the 2020 school year by state health mandates and health advisories for the wearing of facial coverings remain in place, many community members still wanted to be able to celebrate their graduates in the traditional way.
MSBSD Superintendent Dr. Monica Goyette said that another graduation ceremony is not completely ruled out for later in the fall, but that the district did not want the scheduled graduation dates to go by without celebrating their graduates.
Colony High teacher Brian Mead and Wasilla High teacher John Notestine directed and produced 13 individual graduation ceremonies, one to be streamed for each high school.
“People are disappointed about the fact that we have such a strong tradition at PHS for the graduation and people come out of the woodworks for it and it’s a big family community event and there’s no way that you could recreate that safely at this point,” said PHS principal Paul Reid.
PHS Nordic ski coach and teacher Mike Evans has recorded his keynote speech that will be broadcast on Tuesday at 7 p.m.and senior Madison Drawdy will have her rendition of “Million Dreams” that she recorded April 30 aired for her classmates to see. While the Palmer community cannot physically cram the PHS parking lot and be collectively moved to tears by emotional speeches while in the same space, Palmer citizens are ensuring that the class of 2020 will have a memorable experience for the culmination of their experience at Palmer High.
“Seeing it all together will probably be very exciting, but sad too that we can’t all be together and celebrate,” said PHS guidance secretary JoLene Grover. “The hardest part is not being able to say goodbye to them and I usually get to hug them as they cross the stage and I won’t get to do that this year so I will miss the hugs.”