QUINCY — Olivia Miller marked a milestone Tuesday by picking up her cap and gown at Quincy High School.
"I'm very excited to get my cap and gown," she said. "It'll make graduating feel real."
Miller, like many of her classmates, already graduated from QHS, taking the early graduation option offered beginning last week as the latest change in a senior year turned topsy-turvy by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eligible QHS seniors can graduate immediately, with third quarter grades used as second semester grades, but still can participate in all QHS activities that do not get canceled including music, athletics, prom and graduation.
"Besides the bummer they're not participating in the end of their senior year with all their friends, there really isn't a downside to doing it," QHS Counselor Mindy Jackson said.
Picking up caps, gowns and graduation announcements — all ordered long before anyone had heard of COVID-19 — was one more important step in wrapping up their senior year.
"Many schools have not decided when or how to host graduation, but students still want to send out graduation announcements and get pictures in caps and gowns," said Todd Lawrence, West-Central Illinois sales representative for Jostens.
Jostens offered a drive-thru cap and gown pickup Tuesday at QHS, similar to what it's done at schools across the state.
"We're taking every precaution we can. We are delivering curbside. We ask students to roll down their back window or open their trunk. We wear masks, gloves and put items in trunks or windows, avoid any contact and keep social distancing," Lawrence said. "What we have found is people are patient, they're humble, they're kind and more than anything else, they just want to celebrate this accomplishment."
Blake Peter joined the line of cars to pick up his cap and gown.
"I don't think we'll get to have a real ceremony when we get to put it on with the rest of my classmates. It's something we're all going to miss out on and all our families," Peter said.
"This is not how I expected my senior year to end. I was excited to have my last senior softball season with my teammates. I was excited to go to prom and I was so excited that I would be able to walk across the stage and say that I did it. Now all of that is up in the air," said Abbie Neally, who plans to attend Central Methodist University. "I feel cheated. What keeps me going though is knowing that I'm not the only senior who is feeling this way. It's the Class of 2020 nationwide."
QHS still plans to recognize its senior class.
"We are committed to honoring our graduates and all that you have accomplished," QHS Principal Jody Steinke said in a letter to seniors and parents. "Our plan is to have graduation on May 22. If we are unable to have a traditional ceremony, we will find an alternate way to celebrate and honor your time at QHS."
Depending on what Gov. J.B. Pritzker does with reopening schools, "our options are to keep it the same, postpone it until later in the summer or offer a nontraditional, remote ceremony," Steinke said. "Prom has been rescheduled for July 24."
Peter and Neally both said graduating early was a good option for them.
"There was no reason for me to stay. I have all my credits, and it just made more sense to do so," Neally said.
Peter, who plans to attend Quincy University next year to study pre-med, had a financial incentive. "From graduating early, I can get paid a little more for these two months," he said. "I work at Menards. They pay a little more if you have a high school diploma."
Jackson said many students in their second semester of senior year already have met graduation requirements.
"They're either involved in sports or in other extracurricular activities, so they continue classes so they're able to participate, but without those options right now, they kind of lose that argument," Jackson said.
Half the senior class was eligible for early graduation, and most of the rest "have just a little bit of work to do with current teachers, then they will be eligible as well," Jackson said. "They are in a world of unknowns that's not their fault, so we want to help them get that high school diploma and then move on."
Early graduates may be able to work and earn more, start a job or internship earlier and seek out still-available college scholarships.
"We are sending out a confirmation letter after the early graduation is processed," Jackson said. "They should receive a letter within a week of them telling us they want to graduate early."
Peter's still doing some school work, making sure he's ready to take AP tests at the end of the year.
"Mostly senior teachers are focused on helping students complete what they need or for classes that have an additional certification test or AP exam, they're focusing on getting them prepared for those opportunities," Jackson said.
Miller, who had completed all of her requirements, said it made sense to graduate early.
"With this extra time, I can start to work earlier than I have been able to," said Miller, who works at Smoothie King and will be attending Southern Illinois University Edwardsville to study exercise science, pre-occupational therapy. "I'm hoping to work more hours to make money for college."
QHS Early Graduation
Who is eligible to graduate early from Quincy High School?
º Seniors who have accumulated 23 credits, including courses in progress as of March 13.
º Seniors who are passing all current classes needed for graduation.
Who is not eligible to graduate early?
º Seniors who have not earned 23 credits, including courses in progress on March 13.
º Seniors working on Edgenuity to recover previously failed courses.
º Students who earned a failing third quarter grade in a class needed for graduation.
QHS will work with all students to improve third quarter grades, and once grades are at an acceptable level and all other requirements are met, students will be able to graduate early.
What's the process?
Students can email counselors Ashley VanCamp at firstname.lastname@example.org or Mindy Jackson at email@example.com, call Principal Jody Steinke at 217-224-3770, ext. 130, or email Steinke at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Mrs. VanCamp and I want to be available to students for anything related to transitioning to college, their job or any of those things, or if they're just having a tough time with this, we're happy to talk with them," Jackson said.