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story.lead_photo.caption Lindsay Bradshaw, with Conway High School, watches as Ryan Tucker, a production team member with Conway Corp., marks off lines to set up the stage for the Conway High School virtual graduation set for broadcast on Sunday. (Special to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

CONWAY -- When Adrienne Robinson got the news in early spring that schools around the state were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Conway High School senior welcomed what she thought would be just a short break from a tough course load.

"I didn't understand the true weight of the situation until a few days later when the governor extended school cancellations well into April and then for the rest of the year," Robinson said. "By that point, I knew in-person graduation was simply not possible. I understood we couldn't jump from two extremes in just one month; we couldn't go from seeing no one but family to congregating with thousands of people in Simmons Bank Arena."

Even though she understood, the reality of missing out on one of life's greatest milestones devastated Robinson, especially given that she was named as the valedictorian of the Conway High School Class of 2020.

"Giving a valedictorian speech at graduation has been a dream of mine long before I entered high school," Robinson said. "Envisioning myself speaking at my graduation is what got me through many, many all-nighters and tough tests and classes. As I have let the reality of our situation sink in, though, I now realize that what I am most upset about is my lack of closure on high school. I never got to say goodbye to my favorite teachers and my school friends. I didn't get the opportunity to have a last day or a senior breakfast. I held out hope that I would get these experiences from graduation, but sadly, that may not happen."

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When Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced last month that the state's schools would be closed for the remainder of the year and all prom and graduation ceremonies would be indefinitely postponed, Conway Corp. -- Conway's city-owned utility system -- partnered with the Conway Public School District to produce a virtual ceremony for the 713 graduates.

The ceremony will be livestreamed on Conway Corp.'s channels 5 and 585 as well as on Conway Corp.'s YouTube channel at 3 p.m. Sunday -- the same day and time the actual graduation ceremony was to be held at Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock. The event will also be replayed throughout the week on the same channels.

The traditional graduation format, sans the students and spectators, will be filmed by Conway Corp. crews live from James H. Clark Auditorium on the Conway High School campus -- following social-distancing and personal-protection protocol -- with portions, such as the valedictorian speech and others, prefilmed. Also featured will be student-interview clips, photo montages and other special senior memories to commemorate the graduating class.

The names of the graduates will be read aloud as pictures of the students are shown.

"Our company was created more than 90 years ago to support education in Conway," Bret Carroll, Conway Corp. chief executive officer, said. "We're proud to continue our tradition of broadcasting Conway High's graduation ceremonies and wanted the Class of 2020 to be honored in a memorable way during these unprecedented times for graduates and their families."

Heather Kendrick, a communication specialist with the Conway district, has worked for the past couple of months to bring the production together with Conway Corp. and the district's graduation coordinator, Lindsay Bradshaw.

"As a parent myself, I empathize with the families of seniors who are mourning the absence of a traditional ceremony and all the other customary senior moments," Kendrick said. "And my heart breaks for the students, who had such a sudden end to their high school experience. So, I think my purpose and resolve to make this virtual graduation the best it can be comes from my desire to offer them an unexpected gift during this time. Not just as a consolation or substitution, but a real and meaningful recognition of their accomplishments."

Robinson, the valedictorian, said that, while she mourns the loss of the traditional ceremony in front of family and friends, there were benefits to the virtual one.

"I was able to rehearse both my speech and the process of graduation as a whole," she said. "It was much less stressful because I could refilm if I messed up. Overall, it was a fun experience to film graduation. The other top four students and I were able to add in our ideas/suggestions; we were very involved in the filming process and that was so much fun."

The students also were allowed to throw their caps in the air on the video, something normally prohibited at graduation ceremonies.

"Although I am still deeply upset that an in-person graduation won't happen on May 17, I do appreciate the fun and unique experience of filming graduation," Robinson said.

The virtual event will be a far cry from the normal crowd of nearly 18,000, but the Conway district's superintendent, Greg Murry, said the livestreamed event still will offer a way to recognize the graduates.

Murry has conducted 12 graduations as superintendent, but this is the first virtual ceremony of his career.

"Our preference is certainly for a traditional graduation," Murry said, then referred to the student graduates. "I enjoy seeing your smiling faces as you graduate and feel the success of receiving your diploma. Our virtual graduation reflects our desire to honor you in a tangible way if we cannot meet on July 18th. Regardless, I know you will make the Wampus Cat Nation very proud as you begin your next chapter of life."

Conway High School Principal Buck Bing said the virtual ceremony is the first of his career.

"I would like to commend them [the students] on their achievement, and let them know how proud we are of them," Bing said. "Secondly, I would congratulate them on becoming Wampus Cat Alumni and ask for them to reflect fondly on their days at Conway High School knowing that they've developed the skills to handle whatever life brings their way. We're looking forward to all the great things the Class of 2020 is going to accomplish."

Metro on 05/16/2020

Print Headline: Virtual graduation offers bit of solace for Conway seniors

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