Prior Lake High School's class of 2020 made their way to the high school one last time during a diploma pick up event on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
The seniors were greeted with cheers and smiles from masked high school staff and school board members as they made their way through a socially distanced assembly line.
"They're an elite group," Prior Lake High School Principal Dr. John Bezek said. "They're coming in here happy and excited for the future."
Earlier this month Gov. Tim Walz announce that indoor and stadium based graduation ceremonies would be prohibited to attempt to mitigate the further spread of the coronavirus. State officials recommended virtual ceremonies, car parades or parking lot ceremonies take place of the traditional pomp and circumstance.
In following the state's guidance, Prior Lake-Savage Area schools invited seniors and their families to join in a reduced ceremony during the high school's resource drop off days.
Staff erected a small stage at the front of the high school and set up a photo opportunity for students to pose in their caps and gowns and with their diplomas after they dropped off their school-issued iPads and books.
Parents and friends snapped the seniors photos' from inside their cars as a professional photographer took a closer portrait of each student.
The photo opportunity preceded a virtual graduation ceremony on Thursday evening.
It was an emotional moment for many of the students and their families. Nicole Malenke, mother of newly graduated senior Jenna Malenke-Marshall, teared up as she talked about having her daughter's high school career culminate in the midst of a pandemic.
"It's tough, it's tough that she didn't get a traditional ceremony," Nicole Malenke said. "They did the best they could."
Jenna Malenke-Marshall, who plans to attend the University of Minnesota next year, said when classes were moved online in March, she wasn't sure her class would get any kind of ceremony. She said she was happy she got a small moment to celebrate.
"I was hoping they would hold on and try to do something later in the summer, but they've got a pretty good system here," Jenna Malenke-Marshall said.
Bezek said he could empathize with the students and families — his own daughter is a graduating senior at another school this year — but added he's seen community and families really step up to celebrate their students.
"The down side is those lost last interactions you're not able to have — those collective pieces," Bezek said. "But I think parents and people are stepping up and doing a lot of other things."
The parents of senior Madison Lance said they had been hoping for the pomp and circumstance of a full ceremony but were glad the district provided an alternative for their daughter. For Lance, who will be attending the University of Minnesota in the fall, she said the moment was surreal.
"It's still kind of weird," Lance said. "I was hoping to get a chance to say goodbye to all my teachers and all my classmates and I wasn't able to do that. But I do still have that sense of accomplishment with finishing high school and graduating.
"Mixed emotions, I guess," she added.