by Todd Feurer, CBS Chicago web producer

CHICAGO (CBS) — Telling the newest class of Chicago firefighters they are starting their new careers during “the challenge of our lifetime” as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said “we look to you in times of crisis, no matter what form it takes.”

Lightfoot and Chicago Fire Commissioner Richard Ford II oversaw a socially distanced graduation ceremony for 88 new members of the Fire Department on Tuesday.

In groups of about 15 at a time, the new firefighters donned masks as they took their oaths of office and bumped elbows with the mayor and commissioner.

“COVID-19 has changed everything in our city, including the way we celebrate important days like graduation,” Lightfoot said.

The 88 graduates started training at the Fire Academy in November 2019, and the graduating class includes 26 graduates of the Chicago Public Schools, 14 former police officers, and 26 military veterans.

Lightfoot said they are starting their careers as firefighters during an unprecedented time, with the city fighting to contain the spread of COVID-19. While many businesses remain closed, and most people are staying home as much as possible, firefighters and paramedics are among the essential workers who are not only still on the job, but putting their own lives at risk to help fight the virus.

“As hard as you think they seem at times, and they will, the rewards of your work will far outweigh the challenges,” Lightfoot said. “As all-consuming as our current crisis is, we will get through this and life will go on.”

The mayor also urged the new firefighters to get to know neighborhoods they will serve.

“If you only see Chicago from inside a firehouse, you will be missing everything that makes this city unique, and invariably you’re going to be going into parts of the city that you’ve never seen before. Use this opportunity to really expand your horizons,” she said. “Get to know  the story of the kids and the grandmas, everything that makes these neighborhoods unique and vibrant, and why we cherish the city of neighborhoods.”

Ford also reminded the new firefighters to always practice safety first, noting they will be put to the test from the start.

“The term grace under fire will come to define the way in which you will be expected to do your job,” he said. “Every single time you roll up on a home, a business, or an intersection, that person that you’re assisting may be having the worst day of his or her life. I am confident you will treat them as you would want your loved ones to be treated.”

The new CFD graduates will begin their assignments this week, joining the ranks of approximately 4,900 firefighters and paramedics on the force.