Though separated throughout the community, Grand Island Senior High graduating seniors came together Sunday to celebrate with an online ceremony.

The ceremony streamed on the Grand Island Public Schools website, Facebook, and YouTube, and also aired live on News Channel Nebraska.

The day’s speakers were the only in-person attendees for the ceremony, appearing live from the GISH west gym.

GISH Executive Principal Jeff Gilbertson began by quoting President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

“This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny,” Gilbertson said.

The young men and women of 86 years prior met the challenges of The Great Depression and World War II to become what broadcaster Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.”

Tawana Grover, Grand Island Public Schools superintendent, called the Class of 2020 the “epitome of overcoming and adapting” and compared the resiliency of her students to that of the palm tree, which can withstand even the gravest storm.

“While some have described COVID-19 as a tsunami, there is no storm that can break the spirit of who you are. You are an Islander,” Grover said. “You will flourish like the palm tree. Your resilience has been put to the test.”

She added, “I am so very proud of all 564 of you.”

Despite the impact of coronavirus on their lives, Gilbertson asked the students to reflect on their hard work and remember those who love them.

“You will forever be an Islander,” he said. “Islanders never quit. Islanders persevere. Islanders succeed. No one can ever take your education and your destiny away from you.”

Student speaker Grace Johnson spoke on the wisdom gained from an unwelcome lesson her schoolmates have been forced to learn: unfairness.

“The world has been raining on us for a while now and we don’t know when it’s going to stop. We’re sad and angry and disappointed, and we should be. We want back what has been taken from us,” Johnson said. “But our mistake is believing we’re always given what we deserve. Our mistake is believing the world chooses who it rains on.”

Many opportunities have been lost, such as having a senior prom, but it is an opportunity, too, to become better and strong people, she said.

“The unfairness we’re going through isn’t supposed to be easy, but it is supposed to make us stronger,” Johnson said. “It is supposed to make us better, and it’s our job to learn from it.”

A special gift dedicated to the Class of 2020, a painting depicting palm trees, realized by GISH art teacher Jerome Dubas, will be displayed in a place of honor, Grover said.

“You shall forever serve as a picture of encouragement for many others to come,” she said. “You shall forever remind all of us that when the storms of life are presented, we are Islanders, and like the palm tree, we are built with what it takes to hold our ground with grace.”

An online ceremony was chosen to allow the graduating class to, at least, retain some sense of control, Gilbertson told The Independent.

“In the midst of not controlling a lot when COVID is brand new and there’s so much uncertainty, one thing we kept coming back to is, we do control the date — May 17,” he said. “And we wanted to honor that for our seniors.”

An online ceremony also allowed the students to come together while remaining safe.

Through the online ceremony, the GISH band and choir were able to perform for the event.

The decision to host the event online was met with a positive response, Gilbertson said.

“We vetted every idea through our public and knew that, at the end of the day, it wouldn’t be popular for everyone,” he said. “But the majority of the people, when we were done and made that final decision to do the virtual graduation, people honored that for the most part and understood it.”

He added, “Nothing will replace that actual ceremony, live, but I believe we’ve come close to making our seniors feel like the end of their year is something to be remembered and not forgotten.”

Gilbertson is hopeful there will be some return to normalcy with the start of the 2020-2021 school year.

“I’m confident we’ll come up with a great plan to start school in August,” he said. “I have no idea what it looks like, but I think we’re going to get back within a year to some sort of normality.”

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