IOWA CITY — When Jessica Moonjely stumbled over a line in her speech to West High School’s Class of 2020, almost no one was there to hear the mistake.
“We even braved a polar vortex — wait, that didn’t make sense,” the senior class president said, interrupting herself as a small crew filmed her speech Tuesday in West’s near-empty auditorium.
A producer backed up the teleprompter, and Moonjely adjusted her hair underneath her forest-green graduation cap. She looked back into the camera lens focused on her at a spotlighted lectern.
“We even braved through a polar vortex, causing us to have nine whole snow days — an unprecedented amount of lost time,” she said, recapping her class’ four years at West. “We were so naive back then.”
High school seniors in the Iowa City Community School District graduated this week, returning to West, City and Liberty high schools after being kept away for months by the coronavirus pandemic.
The three high schools are hosting small, socially distanced ceremonies this week in lieu of one large celebration each, and Focus Productions Inc. is compiling a ceremony video for each school.
Liberty High Principal Scott Kibby estimated this year’s graduation will last 18 hours in all as his school, which opened in 2017, graduates its first full class.
Students, most of whom started attending Liberty as sophomores, walk a stage and receive their diplomas from an administrator.
With teachers unable to attend, Assistant Principal Justin Colbert made large prints their staff headshots and taped them to auditorium seats.
“Nobody signed up for COVID-19 duty, so we’re doing the best we can to make it right for kids,” Kibby said Thursday in between the day’s nearly 80 ceremonies. “I’ll be tired on Saturday night.”
At City High, Principal John Bacon opened the school’s graduation video bemoaning the loss of their final pep rally — before leading a chant of the school motto, alone, and tearing off red breakaway pants he had on over his suit.
“You will always share a bond unlike any other graduating class in the history of our high school,” he said, during a more somber moment of his speech.
“A year like this one has never happened before. I am glad it was the senior class of 2020 to be there to guide us through.”
Students in the Iowa City district haven’t been to school since March 13, the last day of classes before spring break.
Moonjely, West’s senior class president, said when she started writing her speech, she wasn’t sure there would be a ceremony where she would get to give it.
“I was spending a lot of time in my room,” she said. “... I just started writing down my thoughts and reflecting on these past four years. It was a very healthy journaling experience.”
She struggled with her tone, searching for ways to mention the pandemic without letting it overwhelm the speech.
Her class, she said, was more than just the class that had its graduation taken away.
And while she had her missteps scrubbed away by a film crew, Moonjely said she would have traded her few stumbles for a live audience’s laughter and applause.
“I’m standing in this cap and gown, but even now I don’t know if there’s any closure yet,” she said in the hallway outside the auditorium, on her way back home.
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