DIXON – For Elijah Ankney, one of the perks of having a last name that begins with "A" is being the first to experience a new and unusual moment in time – like getting your diploma in the era of coronavirus.

Graduation for 178 seniors at Dixon High School feels quite different this year.

The annual ceremony usually takes place on the grounds of A.C. Bowers Field next to the high school gym, hundreds in attendance to mark the milestone and cheer the teens on.

This year, though, about 30 students a day will arrive at the school in 15-minute intervals, this weekend and next, for an individual ceremony, their gleeful smiles hidden behind required face masks. Nearly all have chosen to participate.

Today, Elijah, in his camouflage mask, waited for his turn to make his way to a stage at the end of the gym, where eight members of his family, including a dog, sat in folding chairs 6 feet apart.

"It's kind of strange only having eight people," Ankney said. "Usually there's a crowd and your whole family here cheering for you. It's a whole new situation.

"Hopefully, this is the only year this had to happen."

The Illinois State Board of Education put the kibosh on traditional graduation ceremonies earlier this month, which forced schools to make alternate plans.

Principal Michael Grady surveyed the seniors, and near-empty gym format had more interest than virtual ceremonies, a route Erie High School chose to take..

"Doing nothing is not acceptable," Grady said. "At least this gives them a little bit of closure, and it gives them a chance to walk across a stage."

Melody Breckenfelder was the second senior to experience the long walk to the stage. She preferred the in-person interaction to the virtual ceremony options, and it beat sitting down and waiting for your turn to make the stage, she said.

"You get to do something physically in the school, and it's nicer than virtual. You still would have seen everybody, but I like this."

Patrick Grossman's ceremony was next. He's just glad to get something out of it, he said, even if walking across the football field with friends isn't an option this year.

"It's a nice completing to wrap up the end of the year," Grossman said.

Each graduate took their 15 minutes in the spotlight, complete with photo opportunities next to school backdrop with their guests.

"It's nice that I still got to walk across a stage," Breckenfelder said. "You can't do that more than once, and it's nice to do."

When all graduates have received their diplomas, a video will be posted at dps170.org/o/dhs.

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