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O’Hara seniors gather for parking lot graduation

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The Cardinal O’Hara High School community is so proud of its graduating seniors that the coronavirus could not stand in the way of honoring them with a proper send off. As enclosed spaces and tight quarters are not viable options during a pandemic, the 2020 graduation ceremony took place out in the open, in the O’Hara parking lot on May 27 with everyone wearing official Cardinal O’Hara masks.

“We’re able to do a regular graduation ceremony to some extent, but everyone will have to remain in their cars,” explained Renee Orr, director of advancement for the Tonawanda high school, shortly before the event. “The kids won’t be able to process in completely, but they will be able to walk across the stage. The valedictorian and salutatorian will be able to give their speeches.”

The procedure for receiving their diplomas had a unique twist. Students waited in their cars during the speeches, then gathered 10 at a time, standing six feet apart, before taking the stage one at a time. Each student crossed the stage, picked up their diploma from a table, then exited for pictures, before returning to their car. Congratulatory handshakes had to be left out of the mix and car horns honking replaced applause.

The school could not hold its usual baccalaureate Mass the day before graduation, so an awards ceremony was included with the graduation ceremony. Each student had their awards read as he or she walked across the stage.

“Since, we only want one (student on stage) at a time to keep them distanced, we have a little time to do that,” explained Orr.

Valedictorian Diana Dolan spoke of the unusual circumstances caused by the pandemic including the abrupt closing of school, as she addressed her teachers and classmates.

“Senior year has finally come and gone as it does for high schoolers all across the nation every year, but this time it is done so in a way, no one could have possibly expected. Lectures turned to Zoom calls. Classrooms became our bedrooms. And life as we knew it had been transformed as never before. No, this is not the ideal closing to our high school career, but it is our own. As Mrs. Wance has said so many times before, ‘We can’t change what has happened.’”

Dolan continued, “I can say with certainty that I am grateful for the way O’Hara has been there for our class every step of the way during these circumstances. The outpour of support from the amazing teachers and fellow students here is truly something hard to find anywhere else.

“My four years at O’Hara consisted of several standout moments, and almost all of them happened because of the tremendous teachers and staff. Every teacher brought something unique to may day that left me with endless opportunities.”

During her four years at O’Hara, Dolan discovered she had a passion for performing in dance, choir and drama.

“The experience of being part of a dance group, chorus, or cast is something I would never trade. It taught me so much about confidence in myself and the importance of working together as a whole. Maybe performing arts was not your thing, but I encourage you to look at any passion you explore during high school and ask yourself, what have you learn from it and how can you take that into the next chapter of your life,” she said.

She thanked her teachers and friends, then closed her speech with the Cardinal O’Hara catchphrase, “That’s the way it goes at the O.”

The coronavirus pandemic threw the entire world for a loop beginning in March. Businesses were temporarily closed, workers were furloughed, and students had to learn from online classes. O’Hara students were able to follow their regular class schedule through virtual instruction because the faculty prepared early.

“We were really ready to go before this started,” said Orr. “Our principal, Mary Holzerland, a couple weeks before the lockdown happened said, this is a potential thing that could happen. So, the two weeks leading up to the shutdown of our school, the teachers all got trained on Zoom. Our students also got trained on Zoom and Google classrooms. O’Hara was ahead of the game for this.”

As well as the canceled baccalaureate Mass, the school has not yet held it prom. There is still discussion of holding something later this summer. Spring sports were canceled, but the school still hopes to perform the school musical.

“Our fundraising events really took a hit because we weren’t able to have them,” Orr said.

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