WESTFIELD, NJ — First they were moved by speeches. And then they were moved by an incoming thunderstorm. The graduation ceremony cut short by the rain Wednesday will resume Thursday.
Around 480 Westfield High School graduates took to the field at Gary H. Kehler Stadium on Wednesday for a graduation that just a month ago they were unsure would happen at all due to the state’s COVID-19 restrictions.
“The class of 2020 will do incredible things,” said senior Class President Alexis Hammer, speaking to the graduates seated in a socially distanced formation. “We’ve already done great things.”
With her a viral letter on Instagram this past May Hammer had led an effort to lobby Gov. Phil Murphy to allow for graduations and by the time Westfield High School’s outdoor graduation happened, Murphy had lifted the limit on outdoor gatherings to 500 people.
“I’ve learned to use my voice to stand up for what I believe in,” Hammer said.
With the number of graduates nearing 500, family and friends watched the graduation from a livestreamed video shared by the school district.
Westfield High School Principal Mary Asfendis noted the loss of students Carter Uziel, 15, who died by suicide in 2018; Terry DiFalco, 14, who died when struck by an off-duty state trooper driving on Central Avenue in 2017; and her predecessor, Principal Derrick Nelson, who died last year after donating bone marrow to a stranger.
Asfendis also gave a nod to the parents who, while not in attendance due to social distancing restrictions, were among the estimated 1,300 viewers watching the ceremonies remotely.
“Along with each senior here, I wish each parent could be sitting in the bleachers sharing in this well-deserved accomplishment,” said Asfendis, who asked the graduates to rise and applaud their parents and guardians.
Westfield High School Student Government Association President John Czarnecki focused on the time before the pandemic.
When the class of 2020 entered high school, he said, water bottle flipping was replacing fidget spinners as the then newest trend. High school, he said, does not often match up with its television portrayal.
“Where was the episode of Hannah Montana where they told us we had to memorize trigonometric functions?” Czarnecki asked.
While at the dais, he pulled out a sign that says, “Don’t Forget to Enjoy the Journey.”
“While high school was definitely not what I had expected it to be, I did learn one thing throughout my high school experiences: You have to live life in the present.”
“If you are not enjoying what you are doing, don’t be afraid to do something new,” Czarnecki added.
Asfendis said that 20 graduates earned National Merit letters of recommendation, 211 graduates were elected into the national merit honor society and 283 graduates received a President’s Education Award.
At 3:37 p.m., a siren warned of impending lightning on the field at which point Asfendis told the graduates to head to nearby gymnasiums.
“Please make sure you have your masks on and you stay socially distant as much as you can when you enter the gymnasiums,” she said.
Administrators and staff could be seen covering the dais with tarps. The livestream ended at 4:16 p.m as rain fell.
District spokeswoman Mary Ann McGann said the seniors and school officials will be back at Kehler field to complete the ceremony Thursday.
“We will pick up where we left off tomorrow at 3 p.m. with seniors called by name and crossing the stage to receive diplomas,” McGann said. “There is likely to be a new livestream link.”
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