Commencement this month for our approximately 500 graduating seniors was two months late and held outdoors, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the drive-in ceremonies at Ocean Gateway for Portland, Deering and Casco Bay high schools were as inspirational as graduations every year – maybe even more so.

Xavier Botana is the superintendent of Portland Public Schools. He can be reached at [email protected]

I’ve spoken at commencements for four years now, ever since these seniors were freshmen and I was in my first year as Portland Public Schools superintendent. This year held special meaning for me because the class of 2020 is the first class I’ve seen through to graduation.

The class of 2020 is a standout class for many reasons – but most of all for its resiliency during this unprecedented time. The class had to quickly adjust when our schools shut down in March. They soon realized they’d miss out on many cherished senior-year rituals. But these students rallied. They studied hard to make it to graduation and pitched in to creatively plan safe, alternative ceremonies.

The class of 2020 proved they’re resilient human beings. I’m proud to have watched them grow over the past four years and I can’t wait to see their future achievements.

Commencement isn’t just about the graduates – it’s also a time to recognize those who helped them reach that milestone. Class of 2020 speakers said high school staff members were the wind beneath their wings.

“It’s very important that we acknowledge the people who have shaped us into who we are and what we have achieved today,” said Deering High School Student Body President Ladislas Nzeyimana. “These words of gratitude go to all the members of the faculty.”

He told faculty: “Your impact does not end here, for you have shaped and inspired leaders that will change the world in all forms of life, through the knowledge and wisdom you have transmitted to us.”

Casco Bay High class speaker Joshua Mutshaila said school faculty “are always concerned about you. The teachers make time for you. They are special human beings.” He said staff “encouraged me to be the best version of myself.”

Portland High School Class President Erin Chadbourne said remote learning was tough for staff, too.

“Our teachers and staff put in endless hours working to ensure that we finished the year strong, all the while juggling their own situations at home,” she said. “On behalf of the class of 2020, I’d like to say ‘thank you’ for your dedication and commitment to seeing us through to the end.”

Portland Public Schools educators are dedicated and passionate about teaching our students and deserve our gratitude. This fall, I plan a series of columns featuring the voices of individual staff members telling the story of why they chose the work they do, why it’s important and what they find most rewarding about it. Stay posted.

I’ll end with a reminder that the Portland Board of Public Education holds a workshop and vote Aug. 18 on my recommendation for a hybrid model for school this fall – a mix of in-person and remote learning. Students would start Sept. 14.

With input from the community, the board faces a critical challenge: making a decision that threads the needle between full remote learning, with its drawbacks for families and students, and a full return to the classroom, which increases COVID-19 risk. Choosing between problems for families with remote learning and the risk for more COVID-19 cases are choices we’d rather not make. I’m grateful for the board’s thoughtful approach and the hundreds of individuals throughout the community who have weighed in throughout our planning process.

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