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Another pandemic-style rite

Ryan Augustine celebrates during graduation ceremonies Friday at North Catholic High School. The Cranberry Township high school hosted more than 120 graduates and their families for commencement outdoors.

CRANBERRY TWP — “If somebody told me we would graduate in July in the school parking lot, with students in their cars, I would've said, 'No way.'”

But as salutatorian Ryan Feczko said, kicking off commencement, that is exactly what North Catholic High School graduates did to celebrate the move to the next stage of their lives Friday evening.

With students and their families packed into cars and parking spaces at the high school, the more than 120 graduates present followed other county districts in holding a pandemic-style ceremony.

The luster of graduation ceremonies wasn't lost in this one, either, with some students decorating their mortarboards and families tying balloons or painting on car windows to celebrate their students' accomplishments.

And even with the alterations, students and families seemed to appreciate that the private high school made accommodations to hold any form of commencement at all in a time of social distancing and crowd size limitations, following state-mandated school closures in March due to the coronavirus.

“I think it's nice that I get to see all my friends,” graduate Gracie Muth said, adding that it provides closure to this segment of her life.

Her dad, Ray Muth, said the socially distant commencement was a good capstone for the strange end to their senior year, bringing together nearly all of the graduating class one final time. “I'm glad they've done something for the kids,” he added.

Principal Michael Palcsey echoed Gracie's comment during his segment of the ceremony, saying he was glad to “finally” welcome the Class of 2020 back to the school, more than four months after it closed.The district contemplated a number of commencement alternatives, such as having only students participate, the families said. But they much preferred this.“It's a lot better than having an online graduation,” graduate Canaan Branch said.Grant Harsch, speaking before commencement, agreed, saying this was a good substitute for the pomp and circumstance of a non-COVID ceremony.“I think it's a better way, the way things are going,” the newly minted graduate added.Ryan said the students' two-month wait to graduate came in an interesting time. While they received a diploma and will move to the next stage of their lives, they also missed another foundational time — the last few months of high school.“We all wanted to have that together,” he said. “The reality is, we'll never get this time back.”But, he said, the pandemic showed the graduates' resilience and said the class had good times together prior to the abrupt end to their in-person schooling.Referencing the year as “chaotic,” valedictorian Aaron Ventresca said he hopes 2020 proves prophetic, alluding to the number's use in optometry to encourage students to exercise their vision to make the world a better place throughout their lives.As sparsely populated groups of graduates in red and gold accoutrements walked their way through rows of cars in the school's parking lot, it was clear this ceremony was unlike any other in the school's history.But some things — the graduates' smiles and friends' cheers, their parents' pride, the bittersweet transition to young adulthood, the plain discomfort in graduation robes — didn't change.

Brendan Haggerty and Meghan Grill participate in the graduation ceremonies in the parking lot at North Catholic High School on Friday.