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School, town and students honor the Mt. Hope Class of 2020

Bristol honors the Class of 2020 by turning on the lights


Deborah DiBiase stood alone on the field of the Mt. Hope High School football stadium, engulfed in light. It was just before 8:20 p.m. on Monday, April 20, and the high school principal was live and in action, addressing the Class of 2020 over a live Instagram feed.

“You are champions,” she told her students. “You persevere, you will overcome and we will get through this together.”

It was a little message of hope for this year’s graduating class who, as a result of the ongoing coronavirus crisis, have had to miss out on a lot of their senior year of high school. Events like senior week, a senior trip, and even graduation are still completely up in the air, as the fate of K-12 schooling in Rhode Island remains undetermined.

“Everything kind of came to a halt,” said high school senior Justin Pacheco.

To give their Class of 2020 something to celebrate – while at the same time respecting social distancing – the Bristol Warren Regional School District planned a “Be the Light” event, turning on the lights of the Mt. Hope stadium on April 20, at military time 20:20, for 20 minutes. Meant to also honor first-responders, medical personnel and senior citizens, “Be the Light” encouraged residents to shine a light in their own windows as well in order to show their support.

As the lights of the Mt. Hope High School football stadium turned on, lights were also beginning to shine all around Bristol. Justin’s mother, Brenda Pacheco, said homes on Naomi Street had their front doors open and lights flashing; Colt Andrews Elementary School principal Deborah Kearns later reported that her entire neighborhood was lit up. All the while Ms. DiBiase made her way around the stadium, playing uplifting music for those at home watching live.

“It was moving; let’s put it that way,” Ms. DiBiase said.

A celebration, done safely

For those who were watching the livestream of the event from home, the sounds of horns honking and people cheering were clearly audible in the background in those first few minutes — the end result of what was originally intended to be a drive-by car parade.

Organized by Justin and his friend and fellow senior, Makayla Soares, the pair wanted to do something special to support “Be the Light” and celebrate their class. They spent the day-of making posters and, together with their parents, posted on social media asking students to meet in their vehicles at the Dollar Tree on Gooding Ave. and drive by Mt. Hope High School together.

“It’s us shining our light, and it’s also for us to have something memorable, something to do for our senior year,” said Makayla.

While Ms. DiBiase said she “loved the idea,” there were concerns it could turn into a safety issue — if students started to get out of their cars, or decide to come out onto the football field, too. Late Monday afternoon, Superintendent of Schools Jonathan Brice sent out a communication to parents, stating that the parade was not authorized and in violation of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s executive orders. It was a message Bristol police reiterated to Ms. Pacheco and the students who did still park their vehicles in the Dollar Tree lot that night, informing them that were was still a stay-at-home order in effect and that they should not be there congregating in their vehicles.

“It was out of an abundance of caution for the public health and safety of our community and its citizens,” Capt. Brian Burke said.

While they may not have been able to formally gather in their vehicles beforehand, Ms. Pacheco said they were still allowed to drive past the school. Students took to Instagram to say they were currently driving around the school and encouraged them to join in. Capt. Burke said that ultimately it was a “very limited” number of vehicles that drove past the Huskies stadium, honking their horns and cheering in support.

“I think it worked out very nicely – it was definitely controlled, no one was outside of their cars, so everything was done safely,” Ms. Pacheco said.

Though she was originally slightly discouraged about the whole thing – “if it’s OK to do (birthday car parades), what’s the harm in driving by just to see the lights lit?” – Ms. Pacheco said the police department’s response was the right call; after all, she said there was no way for them to know if there was any adult supervision involved, or how many students would have turned up. Students were still pleased with the unofficial drive-by, and in their final pass of the school, Ms. Pacheco said they yelled out a “thank you” to the officers stationed there to monitor the event — who, in turn, responded by flashing their lights.

“This way we weren’t doing anything wrong, and they were doing what they needed to do,” she said.

Although Ms. DiBiase admitted she was a bit nervous when she first heard those horns honking early in the night, she said it was “a testament” to how responsible this year’s group of seniors are in making sure that they were celebrating “Be the Light” safely.

“I tell them all the time, you guys are going to be the ones to change the world,” Ms. DiBiase said.

Apparently, some commenters on the Instagram livestream agree:

“Class of 2020 will be the adults I want in my future.”

2024 by East Bay Media Group

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.