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Seniors get diplomas on racetracks, chairlifts amid virus

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Immediately after giving his valedictorian speech, high school senior Philip Root, still clad in his cap and gown, climbed into a borrowed race car and drove up to the finish line at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

With the yellow tassel of his graduation cap flapping in the wind, Root leaned out the window and posed for a photo as he accepted his diploma — and then took off on a celebratory lap around the track.

Root gave his speech over the radio from the broadcasting booth, which the graduating class of Faith Lutheran High School listened to as they sat with family in individual cars decked out with signs, banners and balloons. Then, in front of the empty grandstands of the racetrack that’s been idled for months due to the coronavirus, Root led his classmates as they pulled up one-by-one to the waving checkered flag to get their certificate from administrators wearing face masks. To mark the milestone, the students and their families whooped and cheered and then hit the gas pedal.

The ceremony was part of a growing push by high schools across the country to find a way to hold in-person graduations and offer up some added pomp amid the coronavirus pandemic. The graduation ceremony is seen by many as salvaging a school year in which many haven’t seen classmates for months and missed out on traditional senior activities such as proms and end-of-school parties.

There are still many schools that have settled on virtual graduations — something that’s drawn online petitions from students and parents demanding traditional commencements be held later in the year if social distancing rules are eased. Some of those virtual events have attracted famous speakers, including President Barack Obama who gave a commencement address earlier this month. The television special featured other celebrities, including NBA star LeBron James, actress Yara Shahidi and actor and singer Ben Platt.

But for schools pressing ahead with in-person graduations, that has meant coming up with creative ways to holding events while adhering to limitations on crowd sizes and social distancing guidelines. They are spacing students apart in big auditoriums with limited guests, or in one town in New Hampshire, sending seniors off with a mountaintop graduation, accessible by chairlift.

“We are using our local community resources and assets to make the best possible case out of what is a horrible current situation,” said Kevin Carpenter, principal of Kennett High School in North Conway, New Hampshire.

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