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Rites of passage are on their way back. For Buena Vista High School, 55 graduating seniors will report to the football field at 10:00 a.m. Saturday, May 29.

They’ll celebrate the completion of their high school duties with diplomas and tassels and with grandma and grandpa wiping back tears, but this year there’s a lot more symbolism attached.

Nobody is saying the COVID-19 pandemic is over, but for this slice in time, things appear better here.

Buena Vista’s Class of 2021 will celebrate its graduation at the football field May 29, with junior-senior prom slated at the school in the evening. Photo by Tara Flanagan.

The students, their families, and staff are coming out on the other side of nothing they could have predicted two years ago. It was a year of masks and distancing and watching for symptoms of COVID-19. There were quarantines. Sports and activities weren’t the same.

But school was open and learning was in person, so for that, the kids in Buena Vista had a considerably more “normal” school life than others elsewhere who were grappling with remote learning for at least part of the year.

“It should feel like the celebration it deserves,” said Superintendent Lisa Yates. “There are so many feelings with it; it’s good.”

That said, she admitted the district has been “tiptoeing” toward the end of the school year, keeping up precautions and hoping that a quarantine doesn’t crop up to thwart anyone’s graduation plans. She said that possibility has been in the back of her mind for some time.

As part of the precautions, the junior-senior prom is slated for graduation night, eliminating a large gathering before that time and the possibility of transmitting COVID-19. Students have always had to register prom guests from other schools, but this year the district plans to pay even more attention to those details.

The district chose the football field with open-air precaution in mind.“It’s a much safer place than indoors,” Yates said, noting that there are contingency plans to move the event to the gym if the weather doesn’t cooperate. In that case, the graduates will have to whittle their guest lists to five friends and family members, and Chaffee County indoor mask orders remained in effect as of May 14.

Excited 2020 graduates arriving at the Buena Vista high school graduation at the Comanche Drive-in. Photo by Jan Wondra.

Last spring, kids, teachers, and parents had been at home struggling with remote learning – some students simply abandoned it – and health officials were playing ping pong with the latest stay-at-home protocols and snippets of research about the virus. COVID-19 had yet to spike in Chaffee County.

Nobody knew exactly what was safe. So the district grappled with finding something that provided a meaningful rite of passage for the graduating class while playing it safe with physical distance.

The class of 2020 didn’t have the graduation that most wanted, but the one they got was something historians will talk about.

“We just needed to have some way to acknowledge these students, that they had come to a milestone in their lives,” Yates said.

The graduation began as a car parade from River Park. With a police escort, students and their families then drove their cars, decked with giant tassels, out to the Comanche Drive-in Movie Theater on the edge of town. The community responded by gathering safely along the route, holding signs and balloons, and letting the kids know they definitely weren’t forgotten.

The ceremony at the Comanche featured on-screen videos from the choir and band. While everything was different, it created emotional ties and a sense of appreciating the students, said Yates, who had a graduating senior in the mix. “It was incredible,” she said.

Yates said the schools will continue to tiptoe to the end of the school year and that the district is planning to once again open in-person for the fall – if everything goes as hoped.

Looking to the summer, the superintendent hasn’t disclosed any plans for a major vacation after making it through a very, very tough school year. “I will be so relieved,” she said, “of not having the day-to-day worry of ‘are we going to make it today?”