By Dave Russell, The Sylva Herald

COVID-19 might have ruined the spring rituals of walking across the stage and pinning corsages on prom dates, but Smoky Mountain High School seniors are getting recognition nonetheless. Signs bearing each graduating senior’s name line N.C. 107 in front of the school, a surprise for the students. 

“We have 200 seniors, and have had a yard sign made for each of them,” School Counselor Paige Jeleniewski said. “We just want to promote these students’ wonderful accomplishments and help spread positivity during these uncertain times.”

Smoky Mountain High School senior Kat Morgan and her parents, Neal and Sylvia of Webster, turned out Monday to place the signs.

The Morgans were the catalyst behind the signs, and other parents jumped in, Jeleniewski said.

“They wanted to do something special for their daughter so they got her a graduation yard sign,” she said. “The Print Shak offered a deal to other parents who wanted it since they’d already designed it. Sylvia Morgan started working with other parents to help them get their own yard signs.”

Once that started, the idea for a sign at the school for every senior was born.

“The community and the Class of 2020 parents came together and got some donations so that all 200 seniors had a sign,” Jeleniewski said. “The goal is for the whole district to have signs and later on they will be displayed for two weeks after Memorial Day.” 

There might be more surprises in store.

“We are brainstorming and working on many options to acknowledge and celebrate our seniors while we are away from our physical building,” she said.

Kat Morgan said her senior year has been “a little crazy.”

“It’s not what I expected from my senior year,” she said. “The teachers have been working to make it good for us. A lot of my teachers are doing Zoom and Google Meet so we can talk face-to-face with the rest of our class, so it’s not like sitting in your house being lonely all the time.”

Morgan said she really appreciates the signs, given graduation is postponed until August.

“That’s a little sad, but they’ve confirmed that we’re still going to have a graduation at least,” she said. “It’s OK. I’m not too down about it.” 

In spite of the tumult, some things are business as usual. Kat Morgan registered for classes that morning at the University of Alabama-Huntsville to study aerospace engineering.

“I have NASA stickers all over my bookbag and on everything,” she said.

Neal Morgan, Kat’s father, wanted to honor the many students he knows from his work with Science Olympiad and marching band, he said. 

“It’s just unprecedented times, and we feel like as parents, we’ve watched my kid work very hard ever since she started school and we have been there for her every step of the way, so we’re here to try to make this as special as we can,” he said. “We think it’s a big deal, the entire senior class has done an outstanding job over their scholastic career. It’s not a whole lot, but we’re trying to give them something special.”

Marybeth Druzbick, who helped organize the sign project, came out to help, placing the sign of her daughter, Sally Hinkle.

Smoky Mountain seniors have a tentative date to walk the stage and get their diplomas at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 2 at Western Carolina’s Ramsey Center or the SMHS stadium.

“This has been a such a collaborative effort from our community,” said Evelyn Graning, Smoky Mountain principal. “While our heart breaks that many milestones were not able to happen for them this year, we want them to know that they are loved and supported through all of this.”

At their Tuesday meeting the Jackson County Board of Commissioners voted to move the signs to the hill in front of the library, citing safety concerns brought up by Sheriff Chip Hall.