Nikki Rowe High School graduates wear protective masks against the COVID-19 pandemic during graduation ceremonies Thursday in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

McALLEN — The class of 2020 went out with a bang here last week, literally.

Ceremonies for McAllen High, Memorial and James “Nikki” Rowe ended the last moments of the graduates’ high school careers with a fireworks display in their respective schools’ colors.

Achieve Early College High and Lamar Academy had no fireworks, but they still went out with a metaphorical bang.

Achieve set a school record with 78 of the school’s 89 graduates, 87.6%, earning associate’s degrees from South Texas College. Lamar graduated 120 international baccalaureate graduates, the most in the district’s history.

Over 1,700 young men and women graduated from the district last week. Many of them will be attending college in-state, at UTRGV, the University of Texas, Texas A&M, Rice and Texas Tech. Others will be heading farther afield, to Harvard, Cornell, Brown, Stanford and several other well-regarded institutions.

Speakers at the ceremonies were, predictably, proud of their students’ accomplishments.

“I have to say this one thing, and it is backed up by data and research. James ‘Nikki’ Rowe High School is the best high school in the state,” Monica Kaufman, Nikki Rowe principal, said Thursday. “The class of 2020 has brought this district its best scores ever in testing and accountability. We earned an A in all seven distinctions. How about a round of applause for these fine young men and women?”

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which threw the end of the graduates’ senior year into disarray and threatened to cancel graduation, were easy to see. Everyone wore a mask and families were bunched into little groups in the stands instead of sitting shoulder-to-shoulder. The graduates’ chairs were noticeably spaced apart.

Nikki Rowe High School graduates enter the McAllen Veterans Memorial Stadium during graduation ceremonies Thursday in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Many of the speakers referenced the pandemic in the ceremonies, usually as an example of the graduates’ ability to overcome or as an opportunity to inject a little wry humor into the last milestone of an unprecedented school year.

“President Conrado Alvarado just whispered something to me,” Trustee Marco Suarez said at McHi’s graduation Tuesday. “He said that the class of 2020 has just made it into the record books. He told me that the class of 2020 has the longest spring break and senior skip day in history. Congratulations.”

The societal upheaval caused by the death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer last month was also evident at the ceremonies. A few students sat or knelt through the national anthem during Memorial’s graduation. The next day about 10 graduates made the same silent display at Rowe’s.

Campbell Speights, a star running back for Memorial, stood and held his fist up during the national anthem at his graduation to pay his respect to the Black Lives Matter movement

“I feel like with everything going on in the world today, it’s something that needs to be taken seriously and people need to be putting in their own to make a difference,” he said. “You’ve got to start somewhere. I’m not sure exactly what the next step is, I’m not sure exactly where people, where the protesters, where anybody needs to take it next, but I’m sure that we’ve got to start somewhere, and if it’s a silent gesture and people notice it, then I think it’s well worth it.”

Attendees to the Nikki Rowe High School graduation ceremonies are seated spaced apart in groups to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus at McAllen Veterans Memorial Stadium on Thursday, June 11, 2020, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Speights said he didn’t get any negative feedback for the display. He said to him, other classmates kneeling or sitting sent a message of solidarity.

“It’s wonderful when you know that we’re not in this alone as an African-American community, we have all types of ethnicities and all types of people that are coming together to help this movement and help make a change in the world, and it’s beautiful to see,” he said.