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Article Published June 19, 2020

Branford Celebrates 80 Graduates at BHS Drive-Up Commencement June 15

By Pam Johnson/

On Monday, June 15, some 80 members of Branford High School Class of 2020 chose to participate in a drive-up commencement ceremony on the school field. They came back to their alma mater on a sunny morning, to be greeted with celebration and congratulations as they received their diplomas from officials at one of four small stages.

The remainder of the BHS Class of 2020, approximately 160 seniors, has opted to participate in a Monday, August 3 commencement which may allow for a few less COVID-19 safe distancing restrictions than those which were followed June 15. That event will also take place at BHS.

During the modified safe-distance ceremony on June 15, seniors stepped up four at a time to receive diplomas from pairs of school officials on four small stages on the school field, as a recording of the traditional Pomp and Circumstance March played.

Each student's name was announced over the public address system; after which they were directed to one of four stages to receive their diploma. Paired off to confer diplomas to the seniors were Board of Education (BOE) chair Shannen Sharkey and Superintendent of Schools Hamlet Hernandez; Assistant Superintendent of Schools Rachel Sexton and BHS principal Lee Panagoulias; Dean of Students Dianne Dadio and BHS assistant principal Stephanie Byrd; BHS assistant principal Joe Brigante and BHS school counselor Marian Montano.

BHS 2020 Class Officers were also on the field for the event, applauding for each graduate together with school officials and faculty; including social chairs Julian Clarke-Dixon and Gabrielle Gillis, treasurer JohnnaLynn Palmese and president Hailey Brunner. Brunner also participated in the BHS June 14 live feed graduation ceremony video event, which served to deliver the Class of 2020's graduation speeches and awards. Brunner gave her speech to the Class of 2020 during the video event.

"It was about our story growing up together, and how this wasn't the end of our story, just the end of chapter together," Brunner told Zip06/The Sound.

Many of the BHS Class of 2020 graduates arriving on June 15 came to the school with their families in decorated vehicles (one vehicle per graduate). They arrived find the grounds decorated with  "BHS Class of 2020" lawn signs and other signs of celebration set up around the school, creating a parade atmosphere as the line of cars grew for the start of the 10 a.m. ceremony.

At the field, BHS faculty dressed in academic regalia greeted the arriving vehicles and directed them to drive in groups of four between two red-and-white balloon towers. Vehicles then pulled up to four special entrances along the fence, where seniors exited their vehicles in their caps and gowns of Hornets' red, with many wearing matching red cloth facial masks embroidered with "Class of 2020" in white. The masks were made for every member of the BHS Class of 2020 by classmate Oliva Vitale and delivered with graduation packets sent out by the school, Panagoulias told Zip06/The Sound.  After crossing the stage, face masks came of briefly as each grad posed for a school-provided official photo on the field.

Among the first four to graduate on June 15 was honors student Hope Steen, who managed to mark the unique moment by bringing along a large pet lizard, cradling it against her neck and shoulder as she received her diploma from Sharkey and Hernandez.

Also among the newly-minted grads on June 15 was Luke Berner, who served as class president for three years before completing his high school studies in December, 2019. Berner began attending Gateway Community College in January 2020 and plans to transfer to study at Southern Connecticut State University, and then on to Hellenic College Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology (Brookline MA), he said.

While he wasn't be able to share this commencement moment with the entire Class of 2020, when asked by Zip06/The Sound what he might say if he had a chance to talk to them, Berner said, "...I just want to say it's been a pleasure to be with them for the past four years. I'm going to miss them, and I wish them luck in the future, wherever their path takes them."

Stepping off the field, graduates got back in their vehicles and continued on a route around the building which took them past a large group their former teachers and staff, who gave each passing graduate a standing ovation.

The June 15 event was the culmination of a senior send-off developed for the BHS Class of 2020 which included a two-hour staff-supported, student-decorated "Decision Day" vehicle parade around the building on June 8 (see related story). On June 12, BHS was also the site of the Walsh Intermediate School eighth-grade promotion vehicle parade.

Speaking to Zip06/The Sound on June 12, Hernandez said all the events developed to support the town's graduating students have helped to create a spirit of celebration for them and their families.

"Despite all the challenges that we faced coming up to this milestone, the staff, the students and the parents have really embraced doing something different, and let go of their disappointment, and be in the moment; and I give them great credit for that," said Hernandez.

On June 17, Hernandez shared his impressions of the June 15 BHS commencement event with members of the BOE, during the virtual full board meeting.

"It was truly extraordinary to be able to see our high school students, in this environment, still be able to celebrate with their families. To be able to very safely get out of a car, share the moment with their families [and] exercise social distancing [to] share with their teachers from a distance," said Hernandez. "It speaks to the authenticity of this time in their lives, and the uniqueness of the event."

Hernandez said the Aug. 3 BHS graduation ceremony will take place at the school, as well. Traditionally, BHS graduation ceremonies are held on the town green. COVID-19 restrictions have canceled that and many other town green summer events, including the Branford Festival and Branford Jazz Fest, this year.

"It is our hope that the restrictions will be alleviated so we can have more participation, but I do want to be clear that that celebration will in fact happen on high school grounds," said Hernandez, speaking at the BOE meeting June 17.

More details will be shared with the students and their families ahead of the Aug. 3 event, said Hernandez.