They squeaked by, and they graduated with highest honors. They are heading to Ivy League institutions, they are entering the work world, and they are the first members of their families to earn high school diplomas.

Roughly 13,000 strong, they are Philadelphia’s high school graduating Class of 2020, students from traditional public schools, charters, and alternative programs.

The public school system feted them with a virtual ceremony Tuesday unlike any had imagined — watched from the privacy of their homes, without classmates or the ability to cross a stage to collect a diploma, featuring prerecorded speeches, student performances, and cameos from the likes of Jill Scott and Black Thought.

The realities of COVID-19 and ongoing public health concerns forced the changes, as well as the loss of in-person schooling since mid-March, and certainly there are other losses, Mayor Jim Kenney told the students: prom, senior trip, yearbook signing, and myriad other rituals.

“These events are important, but not nearly as important as the determination you have shown to get to this moment,” he said.

The virtual graduation marked the end of an academic year that had been upended for thousands of pupils when schools were closed to try and reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

During the ceremony, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. urged the students to be proud of their accomplishments, and also said he understood how unsettling “the very real, very upsetting consequences of systemic racism and social injustice” are, especially in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and other black people killed by police.

“While things may seem overwhelming or hopeless, we must look ahead. And we look to you," said Hite, adding that the potential in the Class of 2020 “is simply extraordinary.”

Former Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, chosen by officials to speak for his community-mindedness and social activism, acknowledged that the world is a frightening place right now, and reassured students both of their value and their ability to shape what comes next. He encouraged them not to take the easy way out and to have a strong work ethic.

“I want you to know that the world is ever-changing, both good and bad, and you get to decide the life you want to have and the difference you can make in our community,” Jenkins said.

Saw Tar Thar Chit Ba, a graduating senior from Furness High School, performed a song during the School District of Philadelphia virtual graduation on Tuesday, June 9.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
Saw Tar Thar Chit Ba, a graduating senior from Furness High School, performed a song during the School District of Philadelphia virtual graduation on Tuesday, June 9.

The talents of the Class of 2020 were on full display, from the soulful acoustic guitar and original song of Saw Tar Thar Chit Ba, a Furness High graduating senior, to the powerful a cappella voice of Jalyn Tabourn, a Franklin Learning Center graduate who also composed and sang an original song.

Hailey Molina, a graduate of Philadelphia High School for Girls, recited an oral essay she wrote for the occasion. The Class of 2020 may be “filled with rage, because this isn’t the way it was supposed to be,” Molina said, but would press on.

“Trust me, we did not wait this long to give up,” said Molina. “It’s time to lift our hands to the sky, because look, we made it.”

Across the region, schools are also providing nontraditional ways to celebrate the Class of 2020.

Earlier Tuesday morning, more than 700 people tuned in to the Upper Darby School District’s YouTube channel to watch its virtual graduation ceremony, which featured photos of seniors in their caps and gowns flashing across the screen as “Pomp and Circumstance” played, and student speakers reflected on the unprecedented disruption to their senior year.

“You didn’t think something as little as a global pandemic was going to keep me from giving my last message, did you?” senior Hanief Wilcox said before describing how his class and the “entire world” had been forced to reckon with the virus — and grow in the process.

“We realized the simple things, like giving a hug, opening the door for someone, or fist-bumping our teachers in the hallways” were not so simple, Wilcox said. Still, “to see my classmates raising each other up and promoting positivity during this time was an amazing sight.”

Senior Maryam Peters — who recalled that entering high school “felt like trying to figure out a giant puzzle” and where she fit in — told classmates that while the pandemic had upended a “pivotal moment” of their lives, “just because we were impacted doesn’t mean it has to break us.”