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Richmond Graduates Reflect on Virtual School Year

graduation ceremony
Armstrong High students celebrated the end of a difficult school year at a graduation ceremony this week. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

After an unusual academic year that was mostly virtual due to the pandemic, Richmond schools held their graduation ceremonies this week.  

Looking back on the last year of virtual school, Richmond graduates described it as “hectic.” Jasmine Twiman, a graduate of Open High School, said sometimes working remotely made it difficult to connect with teachers and school staff. 

“But it was doable. I pulled through, so that’s all that matters,” Twiman said. She says she’s now heading to Virginia Commonwealth University to study biomedical engineering. “I’m proud of us. It was touch-and-go for a while, but I’m proud of us.”

Deontae Burns, who graduated from Armstrong High School on Tuesday, gave special thanks to his teachers who helped him deal with technical difficulties. 

“The teachers took time out of their day to stay back with me after school, and you know, sometimes having the right people in your corner can motivate you a certain type of way,” Burns said. 

Sean Peters, who graduated from Open High School on Monday, says virtual learning posed significant mental health challenges. He says he’s especially proud of himself and his peers for overcoming this aspect of the last year. 

“Sometimes it’s really hard just to get out of bed, go to class, be involved in stuff. So I’m just proud of all of us for graduating this year,” Peters said. 

Peters’ mother, Christine Carmichael, says virtual learning was challenging, but she’s proud of her son for making it through. “That last month it seemed like it was a real tug of war, but we did it. I’m excited, and if you went through this time of COVID, the pandemic, listen, there’s nothing which they cannot accomplish,” she said. 

Richmond schools leadership has committed to kicking off next year in person, although virtual learning will remain an option for some families. 

“It was pretty chaotic. It was pretty hard at first to adapt to the whole virtual way of learning, but we made it through, and here we are!” said Airhiez Cabrera, the 2021 valedictorian for Armstrong High School. 

According to Richmond Schools’ Chief Academic Officer Tracy Epp, graduation rates at RPS have greatly improved this year compared to previous school years. About 85% of students were projected to graduate on time this year.  

The district has made particular strides with students of color. This year, graduation rates among Black students rose to 91%, up from 80% last year. Among Latino students, who historically have faced the most barriers to graduating on-time, rates increased to about 63% — a 30 percentage point increase from last year, when only one in three Latino students graduated on time. 

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