School Climate & Safety

Stories to Make You Smile: Shining Stadium Lights to Honor High School Seniors

By Madeline Will — April 08, 2020 4 min read
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It’s impossible to escape the daily torrent of grim news as coronavirus upends our home, school, and work lives. To help you cope with the chaos of school building closures, remote learning challenges, and deep fears about the health and safety of your students, co-workers, and loved ones, Education Week will bring you some moments of levity and hope from the world of education. If you have a story you’d like to share:

School buildings have gone dark in recent weeks. But check out the sports fields, and the lights may be shining.

High schools across the country have been turning on the lights on their football fields, soccer fields, baseball fields, or tennis courts as a beacon of hope and encouragement to their students, especially their student-athletes and high school seniors.

And it all started in Dumas, Texas, a small town 45 minutes outside of Amarillo. A couple weeks ago, Dumas High School Principal Brett Beesley was driving home, thinking about school closures, when he got an idea.

“My heart was hurting for our kids, especially for our seniors,” he said. “I thought, ‘What can we do? What can we do to show our kids that we’re thinking about them, and we miss them?’”

At that moment, Beesley passed by the high school’s football stadium, and he thought: “What if we lit the stadium up and branded it as this symbol for hope for our kids, and an assurance that ... there are better days ahead, and we’re going to be stronger on the other side of this?”

He called the head football coach, Aaron Dunnam, to tell him the idea. “He was like, ‘I’m already headed over there,’ ” Beesley said.

Dunnam turned the lights on, took some pictures, and then Beesley tweeted a challenge to other high schools across Texas: Join us and #BeTheLight.

“It just kind of exploded from there,” Beesley said. “It’s been so fun to watch, and I had no expectation of anything like this.”

Schools across the state and the country have put their own unique spin on the idea. Some are turning the lights on every weekday, others are making it a weekly event. Some are turning the lights on at 8:20 pm—20:20 in military time—and leaving them on for 20 minutes, to honor the class of 2020. Others are keeping the lights on one minute for every day students have been out of school. Some schools with digital scoreboards have used them to broadcast the photos of their senior student-athletes.

In Minnesota, some small schools that don’t have their own outdoor sports fields have turned on the lights in their gyms, said John Millea, the media specialist for the Minnesota State High School League: “They want to do it, even if there’s nobody there.”

“I think it’s been a really great symbol: We’re still here, we’re all in this together, and we’re going to return to normalcy at some point,” he said.

About 250 schools across Minnesota have participated in the #BeTheLight initiative so far, Millea said. Educators there have taken precautions to not allow anyone to gather in person to see the lights, but students and their families will drive by to look and honk their car horns in support. Some schools have livestreamed the lights on social media, so students can watch from their own homes.

Dumea High School has a WiFi hotspot so students without internet access at home can do their homework from their cars. Now, Beesley said, there’s a little more light for them to work with.

At Washburn High School in Minneapolis, turning the lights on gave Principal Emily Palmer the opportunity to send a message directly to her seniors. She gathered her assistant principals and an athletic coach on the field—standing six feet apart—to celebrate the class of 2020. They took turns telling seniors how much they missed them and how they can’t wait to see them again.

“Our kids are devastated; seniors especially are absolutely devastated,” Palmer said. “They’re just not getting to have the most fun quarter of high school.”

Turning the lights on and sending a video message “is just about trying to bring some positivity,” she said. “We love you, even if we’re not together, and we miss you.”

After all, the chance to reach out to students virtually is why the #BeTheLight movement has caught on so quickly, Beesley said.

“I think it resonates with our educator hearts,” he said. “That’s why we got into this business—we’re passionate about kids. [This] gives a tangible way of communicating with our kids.”

Image: The stadium lights shine over the baseball field at Minneota High School in Minneota, Minn., on April 6. Photo courtesy of Keven Larson.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated which Washburn High School educators filmed the video. The principal, two assistant principals, and one coach were on the field.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.