Evanston High School seniors who missed out on spring sports and activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic were finally given their chance to shine.
Part of the second iteration of the Be the Light cruise that was held last month, seniors were encouraged to line up with their families along Red Devil Drive Friday night, displaying their poster boards with photos and accomplishments for all to see. Many did just that, and as officers of the Evanston Police Department escorted cars onto Red Devil Drive following the cruise, seniors were all smiles as the caravan of decorated cars loaded with coaches, teammates and parents honked and waved as they drove past.
EHS activities director Bubba O’Neill said the event required careful planning to meet social distancing guidelines and other protective measures, though a good time was had by all.
“Anything to break the monotony is a good thing, and I think the kids really enjoyed it,” he said. “Our seniors haven’t been treated as they should or would under normal circumstances, so anything we can do, our school district will do. We’re open to just about anything.”
Members of the Class of 2020 are losing out on many traditions amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including Senior Nights, prom and walking across the stage at graduation — traditions that are an integral part of transitioning from high school to the next chapter in their lives. O’Neill said that any semblance of normalcy the school district can provide — such as Friday’s event — is a priority.
“[Senior Nights] are really important — it’s something that’s become tradition the last 20 years or so,” O’Neill said. “They took a survey nationwide and asked seniors what they’re going to miss the most, and Senior Nights or senior recognition events were at the top of the list. We wanted to make sure we gave our kids an opportunity to show themselves.”
Similar to last month’s event, participants in Friday’s Be the Light cruise congregated at Jody’s Diner at 8:20 p.m., and — with a police escort — made their way past the illuminated fairgrounds and the ball fields, ending up at the EHS campus.
“I want to say a big thanks to the police department — [EPD Chief] Jon Kirby and his staff are phenomenal,” O’Neill said. “Anytime I ask for help at all, they jump right in and say ‘Yeah, we’ll take care of that.’ That’s not an easy thing to do financially or in terms of time, but Jon and his officers are always there.”
KNYN 99.1 broadcasted live during the event, with Kevin Kallas playing music, as well as Senior Spotlights, recordings made by the senior athletes themselves.
“KNYN’s Julie Burleigh — I went in to see her and talked about a few things,” O’Neill explained. “She said, ‘Yeah, send those recordings to us, and we’ll take care of them.’ And she sure did. The radio station did a fantastic job.”
Prior to the start of the event, supporters gathered in the north parking lot to watch Lady Devil soccer standout Taryn Wagstaff sign her letter of intent to play at Sheridan College in the fall.
“Taryn has been a pretty special girl in terms of our athletic programs,” O’Neill said. “She’s a four-year, three-sport athlete, but she’s even more than that — I dare you to find Taryn off the courts or field when she doesn’t have a smile on her face. She’s a competitor — I really appreciate what she’s done for our activities program and leadership group.”
Despite the continued shutdown, O’Neill and his staff have stayed busy, planning for next year’s sports and activities in the face of an ever-changing pandemic landscape. Schedule planning, equipment purchases and upgrades and brainstorming with the Wyoming High School Activities Association different scenarios for the start of the next school year are just a few of his daily tasks.
“It’s all continuing on, but I can tell you, it’s odd,” he admitted. “I tell people this all the time — without kids, I don’t have a job. We need the kids back in school, we need the kids back involved in activities. For my sanity, sure — but I know it’s important for them as well. We plan on starting normal activity seasons in August. That’s our hope, that we can do that.”
Graduation is the next major event on the EHS calendar, with the district announcing last week that a modified ceremony would indeed be taking place. Commencement is scheduled for Saturday, May 30 at 11 a.m. at Kay Fackrell Stadium, with restrictions in place — each family of a graduating senior will be allowed one vehicle for the senior and his or her family, and vehicles will be parking on the field.
“Plans for graduation are going well,” O’Neill said. “We’ve had to make some modifications to the football field to make that happen. We just wanted to make sure we had something in place, and our school staff and the district continue to work on what that’s going to look like.”
It’s an unprecedented time in our nation’s history, and school districts across the nation have been forced to improvise on the fly. Some ideas work; some don’t — the important thing to remember, according to O’Neill, is that preparedness is key.
“I think one thing this virus has done in education is made us prepared for any scenario as we go along, because it’s changing so much,” he explained. “And peoples’ attitudes are changing towards it — we saw that Friday night. I think people are looking for some normalcy. It’s fun for people to be able to get back together like that.”
With that, O’Neill said he and his staff will continue to work toward providing that normalcy — for everyone involved — and he’s inviting the public to share their ideas to help make that happen.
“We’re working hard to make sure we have a season in the fall,” he said. “We’re fighting as much as I can to get things back to normal, and we’re going to continue to fight. Anyone that has any ideas of what we can do to celebrate our kids, I’m more than willing to listen.”