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A Kentucky County High School Honors Class Of 2020 With A Drive-Through Ceremony


Graduation season is a lot different in 2020. The pandemic has been forcing schools around the world to adapt their ceremonies. On Friday, one high school in rural western Kentucky still found a way to make graduation a big event. NPR's Ashley Westerman has more.


A J AVERY: Still nervous, but it's getting closer to crunch time. We've got about an hour...

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: Eighteen-year-old AJ Avery is getting ready for his graduation. His mom, Dana, provided NPR with this cellphone video.


DANA: Buttoning up his shirt.

WESTERMAN: But because of the pandemic, graduation won't be typical. Weeks ago, officials at the high school decided it was too risky to do a traditional ceremony in the gym. AJ tells me on Zoom...

AVERY: First, I was in shock. I was like, now I know this COVID-19 virus is just in China. You know, I didn't expect it to hit Webster County that fast. It doesn't seem real until it actually affects you.

WESTERMAN: The county has had more than 30 confirmed cases of the virus and no deaths. So AJ and the other 146 seniors would don their caps and gowns and pick up their diplomas drive-through style. Only a handful of school staff will be present. It will be livestreamed on YouTube for everybody else. And while thankful to get a ceremony at all, AJ is skeptical.

AVERY: I would surely rather have a in-person graduation to see my parents look at me. And I know they're already proud but just to see their faces when I walk down and get my diploma.

WESTERMAN: In a place like this, a rural, mostly farming community, graduations are a big deal. Multiple family generations go to the county high school because it's the only one around. And, frankly, a lot of people never move away from here. AJ plans to go to college. But first, graduation. When the time comes, the Avery family loads up their pickup truck and drives to the high school to get in line.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Avery, bud (ph), come around, please.

WESTERMAN: Decorated cars filled with seniors and their families snake around the campus. Finally, it's AJ's turn. Principal Jarrod Hankins announces him.

JARROD HANKINS: Next up, we have Mr. AJ Avery. Mr. Avery, if you could, walk up your red carpet and get your diploma.

WESTERMAN: AJ picks up his diploma off the table - no handshake, only cheers and smiles from administrators standing at least 6 feet away and a quick photo before hopping back in the car.

HANKINS: Congratulations again, Mr. AJ Avery.


WESTERMAN: Afterward, the seniors parade through their small hometowns led by first responders. People lined up on the main thoroughfare in the town of Providence to cheer on AJ and the other seniors.


WESTERMAN: Afterward, mom Dana is almost in tears.

DANA: Oh, I loved it. I was so excited 'cause these kids has been through a lot to be able to graduate, and the whole community of Webster County come together and pulled it together. And I'm just overjoyed.

WESTERMAN: And the graduate himself...

AVERY: I feel great. You know, it was bigger than I thought it would be. More people came out. It was just amazing.


WESTERMAN: So take that, COVID-19.

Ashley Westerman, NPR News, Webster County, Ky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.