Class of 2020 graduates on Youtube

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Members of the Townsend Harris Class of 2020 graduated last Monday via a virtual ceremony following the tumultuous last months of their high school careers.

Principal Brian Condon offered his congratulations and advice to the seniors during the ceremony. He said, “Congratulations on completing your high school journey at Townsend Harris. We are proud of you and all you have accomplished. To say you have completed this journey during interesting and adverse times is the very definition of an understatement.”

The graduation video was livestreamed and posted on the THHS official YouTube channel for seniors to watch at home. Graduation committee members Assistant Principal Veronica York, senior advisor Jaime Baranoff, band director Kevin Heathwood, senior class president Tina Chen, videographer senior Savannah Sclafani, and producer Emily Livacari, along with many other students and faculty members, made the graduation possible through a collective effort.

Throughout the planning process, the graduation committee maintained communication with Ms. Livacari, who is employed at Van Wagner, a sports and entertainment company, in order to ensure that the graduation ran smoothly.

“The school hired the company because no one was really familiar with how to livestream, let alone livestream an important ceremony to such a large audience…it also ensured security (to prevent such interruptions as seen with Zoom bombings),” said Savannah. “It was important to the committee and to the administration for [the graduation] to be a special ceremony for the Class of 2020.”

The virtual graduation featured speeches from keynote speaker Chloé Valdary, Assistant Principals, Townsend Harris Alumni Association chairs, SU president Annlin Su, the salutatorian, and the valedictorian. Faculty members, including Assistant Principals Veronica York and Ellen Fee, recognized seniors’ achievements and introduced several student speakers as well.

Due to social distancing measures imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, however, many elements of graduation were modified. The THHS wind ensemble and THHS chamber strings, conducted by Mr. Heathwood and orchestra director Chris Lee respectively, played several songs over the course of the commencement ceremony by synchronizing videos of students playing from their homes. Instead of a roll call, seniors made slides showcasing their accolades that were incorporated into the video. The Classic’s annual college video, in which seniors show off the colleges they are headed to with their friends, featured students’ self-filmed TikToks and group Zoom calls this year. The video was produced by seniors Melina Kostopoulos and former editor-in-chief of The Classic Amanda Renzi.

“Filming in person at school would have no doubt been easier, but we had to work with being at home and I think we did it well,” said Melina. “I hope that the college video provided the seniors a sense of closure and pride for the last four years of high school. We wanted to keep our tradition of celebrating the accomplishments of seniors because they deserve it, no matter if we are in school or at home.”

Amanda added, “Personally, the college video was something that encouraged me to keep going and reminded me that the world doesn’t stop for you. Even though it was hard to end like this, I knew that we would eventually escape it and end up at our colleges.”

According to Ms. York, the administration initially weighed options such as a drive-through or socially distant ceremony. However, she explained that they faced limitations because of safety and inclusion. “Our students do not come from just one neighborhood, they travel from all over Queens and at times from the outer boroughs. We also know that not all families drive. Holding graduation virtually created an event that everyone could be a part of.” Given these circumstances, they opted for a virtual graduation instead.

Senior advisor Jaime Baranoff said, “There were a lot of moving pieces. We had to coordinate music, the slides created by the students, several hundred awards (baccalaureate and otherwise), and maybe 20 speakers from both inside and outside THHS had to record their speeches and submit videos. We had a really good team of students, teachers, administrators, and our producer and editors.”

Senior class president Tina Chen said, “I provided student feedback throughout the entire graduation planning process so the livestream that we had was almost exactly what I expected.”

Senior Delila Hasic, who received the Thomas Sweetin Award, said she felt the ceremony, though virtual, was well done and still emotionally gratifying. She commented, “The way they did the video collages of the kids from band, Mr. Heathwood conducting, the APs still giving their usual speeches, it all felt very special. The custom Google Slides roll call was also really sweet; you could really see everyone’s personalities shine through. It was very clear that all those involved worked hard to make this day special for us seniors.”

Nevertheless, others expressed their disappointment at the cancellation of an in-person graduation ceremony.

Tina said, “A part of me is sad because we missed out on something that every year before us had experienced. However, I don’t think anyone can deny that a two hour long in-person ceremony is boring.”

“Missing out on the traditional graduation experience kind of led to a lack of closure in some ways. But I am also extremely grateful that we were able to have a virtual graduation ceremony at all,” said valedictorian Hope Ha. “I think being at home instead of at school allowed for more nostalgia than usual. I think we always tend to appreciate things more after they’re gone, and I’m sure the same can be said about Townsend.”