College & Workforce Readiness

Five Ideas for a Pandemic-Proof Graduation

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 15, 2020 9 min read
Graduating senior Neiko Pollard wears gloves while trying on a graduation cap during cap-and-gown pickup at Page High School in Greensboro, N.C.
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Dan Nickel, principal of Sturgeon Bay High School in Wisconsin, thought he had a pandemic-proof graduation idea for his Class of 2020.

The school is, as its name would suggest, nestled along a waterway connecting Green Bay to Lake Michigan. The plan was to call seniors one by one to the Madelyn Marina, where they could get their diplomas and a picturesque graduation photo before boarding individual boats for a floating parade around the bay, with family and friends cheering on the school’s Clipper ship and red and white colors from a coronavirus-safe distance on the banks.

Maybe it was a little too good an idea.

“The whole boat parade idea got crashed because the public health services from Wisconsin said that we couldn’t bring large groups of people together,” Nickel said. While at first approving, officials changed their minds earlier this month: “They weren’t worried about the graduates in the boats; they were worried about large numbers of people gathering on the shore to watch the parade.”

Instead, the school has to opt for “approved state graduation model one:” Each family drives to the front of the school and waits while their student gets out, gets a diploma and photo, and gets back in, before driving off.

“It’s pretty pathetic, but I’m not going to give in to simply mailing diplomas home,” Nickel said.

See Also: Parades, Toilet Paper Diplomas and Lawn Signs: Images of Graduation for the Class of 2020

Over the coming weeks, thousands of high schools will be grappling with how to give their graduates a send-off to show their care and pride, while not putting families or staff at risk of the virulent coronavirus that has already derailed senior year. From high-tech to highly personal, here are five options schools are planning to honor the Class of 2020:

1. Go Virtual and Beyond

Even before the pandemic, many school districts had their own YouTube and social media channels, and now livestreamed, taped, or otherwise virtual commencement ceremonies have become almost ubiquitous. But graduations don’t have to be impersonal just because they’re not in-person.

For example, the Gilbert public school system in Gilbert, Ariz,. has found a way for seniors to receive their diplomas from their principals personally—via hologram. Over three days, each student will be taped individually at a sound stage at the Mesquite Junior High, “walking onto the stage” while their principal is taped congratulating them in front of a green screen in a separate room. The films are then edited together to create virtual “in-person” diploma handoffs.

Gilbert public schools in Arizona partnered with a local virtual reality company to create “holograms” of students in all seven graduating classes receiving diplomas from their principals. Each senior is filmed separately from their principal, but the technology will make it appear that the principal and student are on stage together.

School leaders may also consider enlisting students adept in social-gaming platforms to help create avatar-based graduations. Virtual ceremonies on Second Life have been popular among colleges and distance-learning programs for years, and during the pandemic, high school students in Chesterfield County, Va., created a stage themed for Midlothian High School in the building platform Minecraft to hold an informal graduation for some seniors. Several of these games have free education versions and supports for schools.

2. Get Them Across the Finish Line

From the Daytona Speedway in Florida and the Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania, the Texas Motor Speedway to the Phoenix Raceway in Arizona, seniors in dozens of high schools across the country are taking their high school victory laps.

James Tager, superintendent of Flagler County schools in Florida, said partnerships have been critical to planning upcoming commencement ceremonies at Daytona Speedway, where students will be handed their diplomas as they drive across the checkered black-and-white start/finish line.

The Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania is among several racetracks around the country where high school graduations are being staged this season.

“Holding an event with 100,000 people without having to socially distance is one thing. Holding something much smaller, with the proper protocols is a little trickier. Sure, you can tell everyone you have to stay in your vehicle, but what about restrooms?” Tager said. Chip Wile, president of the Speedway, helped the district get portable restrooms while the district will provide cleaning staff, and the Speedway will livestream the ceremony and tape a highlight reel for seniors.

Like those in Flagler County, seniors and families in Buckeye Union High School in Arizona and Pennsylvania’s North Pocono school district will watch the speeches and ceremonies broadcast on video boards while sitting in their own cars on the racetracks, then drive across the start/finish line as their names are called. Seniors from 23 high schools in Denton County, Texas, will sit masked and spaced apart in the Speedway’s pit-crew area while their families watch the graduates’ walk to get diplomas from inside their cars in the 85-acre center field.

“The anticipation and excitement our seniors were feeling as they progressed through their final semester of high school was quickly swept away as our schools closed and students never returned from spring break,” said Buckeye Union Superintendent Eric Godfrey in a letter. “This will never replace all that they lost, but hopefully, this experience will be a lifetime memory-maker.”

3. Drive-Ins, Park-Ins, and Parades

For schools looking for more nostalgic graduation ceremonies, some of the country’s historic drive-in movie theaters are playing host to drive-in commencements projected on the big screen. These have proven popular for smaller high schools, such as Pioneer Valley Regional High School in Northfield, Mass., as well as Grand Blanc High School, the third largest in Michigan.

“We had different conversations about trying to remain on point with our traditions, but we have a graduating class of 650, so just the realities of getting that many people together indoors anytime soon was probably not realistic,” said Grand Blanc Principal Mike Fray.

A sign company employee works on the marquee at Boulevard Drive-in Theatre in Kansas City, Kan. The drive-in will be the site of six Kansas City area high school graduations while schools remain closed.

Instead, the school opted for the historic U.S. Highway 23 Drive-In, which had three screens and enough parking slots to park one senior in every other slot. The high school’s broadcasting department is cutting together a 90-minute video including traditional senior and staff speeches individually filmed; file footage of the school band playing “Pomp and Circumstance;” and even a virtual choir performance of the class song.

“It will be just like going to the movies: You show up, find your parking spot, and when it gets dark around 9:15, we’re going to hit play and all watch the movie together,” Fray said.

The spaced out cars will allow students to bring some family with them without breaking social distancing rules, and Fray said many are already talking about how to decorate their rides. “I’ve been really, really pleased with the excitement in the community,” Fray said.

“You know, many schools are still in a wait-and-see approach—which I completely understand—pinning their hopes on July or August to maybe do something more traditional,” he said, “but I think our families appreciated that we’ve committed to a plan and we’re moving forward … and there can be some closure.”

While being close a historic drive-in theater is handy, districts can make this sort of ceremony nearly anywhere, through decorated parking lot graduations like this upcoming one for Smiths Station (Ala.) High School and a truck parade at Kotzebue High School in Alaska. Fray said he has heard from some districts who are simply renting an inflatable screen and a projector and making their own drive-in graduation in their school parking lot or sports field.

Ceremonies like these are a more inclusive version of the drive-through diploma pickup, allowing all seniors to graduate at once and at least some family and friends to show support in person while remaining isolated. To avoid running afoul of health rules, school and district leaders should discourage attendees from leaving their cars and be cautious of running car parades through neighborhoods; local news reports in South Bend, Ind., for example, found graduation parade watchers clustered unmasked and traffic backed up along parts of the parade route for an hour.

4. Go Traditional—With Caution

Even as states begin to ease up on stay-home orders, live, in-person graduation ceremonies remain risky. Buckeye Union High School in Arizona will livestream its driving parade for graduates and their families at Phoenix Raceway, but in a letter to families, Superintendent Eric Godfrey had to put off the in-person graduation at Goodyear Ballpark until restrictions on public gatherings are lifted.

For districts that hope to hew closely to tradition, coordination is key.

The North Hills school district in Pittsburgh planned its commencement with two separate police departments and the chief epidemiologist of the Allegheny County health department to figure out how to meet health guidelines in a standard walk across the stage. Each graduate gets a reserved time slot for the graduate and up to four family members, who remain masked throughout and go through multiple checkpoints in the school’s outdoor football stadium to maintain social distancing. Once at the stage, each student gets a minute-long mini-ceremony, with their name, merits, college plans read; the diploma awarded; a photo or two taken, and then a quick exit directly to the parking lot and home.

“We know this is not ideal,” said Superintendent Patrick Mannarino in a letter to families. “We understand the frustration from our seniors who will not get to be with all of their classmates on the field with their family and friends in the stands, but we remain confident this is the best plan given the current circumstances.”

5. Give Seniors Wishes From the Heart

Commencements don’t have to be high-tech or flashy to show care, though. Some schools have turned the default mailed-home diplomas on their heads with personal touches.

In Vanceboro, N.C., West Craven High School Principal Tabari Wallace donned cap, gown, and mask to deliver signs and personal congratulations with his teachers to all 220 Class of 2020 students. Principals in districts in Texas, Florida, and other locations have also hand-delivered signs or messages honoring their seniors.

Teachers in West Anchorage High School packed memorabilia boxes for each member of the Class of 2020, complete with mugs and keychains from community organizations and personal letters from teachers and staff.

And in Anchorage, Alaska, each school’s commencement will come in the form of an hourlong YouTube video with recorded speeches from seniors. But schools will also deliver a personalized memorabilia box for each graduate.

Boxes have the typical Class of 2020 tchotchkes—yard decorations, a mug from the chamber of commerce, a keychain and tassels for graduates’ caps—but also, “every single one of our graduates—360 of them—have at least one handwritten letter in them from a teacher or staff member,” said Sven Gustafson, the principal of West Anchorage High School. “All that we did is send out a list of all of our seniors. The staff started writing letters to those that they had connections with. Piles of letters came in, and after we stuffed the boxes, every single kiddo had at least one. … This is such a hard time and we just hope we can give all of our graduates something to celebrate.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 03, 2020 edition of Education Week as Schools Get Creative With Pandemic-Proof Graduations


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