GREEN, Ohio — Summit County Deputy Todd Hart started a tradition a dozen years ago and he won't let the coronavirus pandemic stop him from honoring high school seniors, albeit in a different way.
In years past, Hart, the school resource officer for Green High School, stood in between boys and girls as they lined up for their graduation ceremony and offered each one of them a personal congratulations.
"I congratulate everyone as they go out, either a high five or a handshake or a head nod or just a congratulations, but I at least try to make some form of contact," Hart said.
The COVID-19 crisis abruptly ended the school year for the class of 2020 and cast doubt on how or if districts would be able to organize rites of passage moments like graduation and prom during an age of social distancing.
Green School District leaders are working on a way to hold an alternative type of graduation ceremony for seniors, but the details haven't been worked out yet.
Hart, who misses talking to the kids and helping them out with problems, knew he wanted to do something to honor the 317 students in the class.
"Graduation is like their Super Bowl. Everything they've been doing for the last 12 years has been leading up to this one moment and now that moment is taken away from them," he said.
Earlier this week an idea came to him. Why not drive to every senior's home to congratulate them for their accomplishments?
So far, he has visited about 50 of the students. Hart said many of the parents get emotional, and if it's before 11 a.m., many of the kids have to be woken up. He plans to stop at each house before May 28, the original date for graduation.
"The first thing I have to do is tell the parent who answers the door: No one is in trouble. No one is hurt," Hart said.
The deputy has mixed feelings during the visits. He's sad for what the kids are going through, but he's enjoying the one-on-one conversations with the teens.
"There's a little glimmer of hope," he said. "You're actually getting more personal."
Harlie McKee, a senior who plans to attend the University of Akron, summed up how many in the class of 2020 are feeling.
"It sucks. This is my senior year and essentially, even if the quarantine and everything were to be lifted now, it's essentially been robbed from me," she said.
Ethan Sir Louis, who has been accepted at Ohio State University, was excited when Hart knocked on his door Friday morning.
"I think it's great. I love Deputy Hart, all he does for us. I see him, used to see him in the hallway every day," Sir Louis said.
Jordan Diaz, a cheerleader and track athlete, said all of her teammates were saddened when the track season was canceled. The future Ohio University student was also touched by Hart's thoughtful gesture.
"It means that they care," Diaz said.
As the seniors begin the next chapter in their lives, the deputy wanted to leave them with a lasting message during a time of uncertainty.
"Don't let this-- that's going on-- define their last year of high school. Think of the good memories. Take those lessons that you've learned and move on and be productive."