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COVID-19 impacts high school graduations

Graduation ceremonies for the Class of 2020 will look much different than what students anticipated as high schools grapple with how to celebrate their accomplishments in light of COVID-19.
Airdrie high schools are looking at alternative ways to celebrate graduates after cancelling in-person events due to COVID-19. Photo: Metro Creative Connection

Graduation ceremonies for the Class of 2020 will look much different than what students likely anticipated, as high schools grapple with how to celebrate their accomplishments in light of COVID-19.

With the pandemic ongoing, Rocky View Schools (RVS) made the decision to cancel traditional ceremonies and banquets. Superintendent Greg Luterbach called the decision "extremely difficult".

“Graduation is much more than just an event,” he said. “It’s a community-wide celebration that really acknowledges a major milestone in the students’ learning journey. For this year, given the pandemic, we’re just not in a position to have those traditional events.”

Luterbach outlined the decision in a letter to graduates and their families.

"Given we have no sense of when the current social distancing guidelines will be lifted, it is not feasible for schools to plan for in-person events that draw large crowds,” he wrote

With so much uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, Luterbach said the school division was not in a position to postpone graduations to a later date.

“Rather than leaving them hanging, we shifted our focus around how are we going to celebrate graduation for these students that have had this major accomplishment,” Luterbach said.

Schools belonging to the Calgary Catholic School Division (CCSD), including Airdrie’s St. Martin de Porres High School, found themselves in the same situation. Principal Elisé Saraceni said CCSD cancelled all in-person ceremonies in order to comply with health guidelines, and a collective decision was made by CCSD’s senior administration and senior high principals to hold graduation in an alternative form.

For St. Martin, that means graduation will include two elements this year, Saraceni said. The first part is a virtual graduation, which will include video presentations from the school’s valedictorian, staff members and priest, Father Julian Studden.

“Most importantly, there will be a slide that will allow each student a unique spot in the show, so that we can highlight their image and their accomplishments,” Saraceni said.

A date for the virtual ceremony has not yet been set, she said.

The second component is a drive-through graduation June 18, where families will be invited to drive to the school with their graduate in the front passenger seat.

“Students will weave their way in a parade-like fashion towards the very front of our school,” she said. “We’ll have a stage there, and when they get to that front line position, their car will park, the student will come out of their car, they will walk across the red carpet and step upon a stage where they will get their graduation photo taken with their cap and tassel.”

Each student will receive a graduation box containing treats, gifts and their diploma, Saraceni said. Graduates will be allowed to wear either their formal wear or their cap and gown.

 “We hope families will see this as ingenuity born of need,” she said.

Meanwhile, Luterbach said the public school division has tasked its high schools with devising a graduation that is safe given the current pandemic, but still appropriately recognizes the accomplishments of its graduating class. Schools are meant to work with their students, families, staff and grad committees to arrive at those decisions.

This is taking many forms, Luterbach said, with schools looking at options including online ceremonies and lawn sign campaigns.

“In Airdrie, we’ve got a school doing grad-in-a-box, where they’re sending out a box for students with their cap and gown and tassel and diploma,” Luterbach said. “It’s going to be a little bit different for each school, but we do want to recognize each and every student for their accomplishment.”

The news that students would not be walking the stage or attending a banquet has been met with opposition from some in the community. A petition on titled "2020 Airdrie High Schools Graduation Postponed Not Cancelled," has recieved more than 1,300 signatures as of May 12.

Calumn Hickerson, a senior at George McDougall High School, said he would have preferred to see his graduation postponed to a later date, and said he was "outraged" by the decision to cancel in-person events.

"We've been stripped of something that is rightfully ours and that we've worked hard to earn," he said.

Luterbach and Saraceni both acknowledged graduates and their families are likely feeling a degree of disappointment.

However, Saraceni said, the Class of 2020 is “a piece of history in the making,” and will experience a graduation unlike any previous cohort.

“We certainly empathize with our graduates and the families that feel a sense of loss because they didn’t get what was the expected graduation,” Saraceni said. “We’re also very hopeful that the photos on taken on this day and the experience will one day transport these kids back to a reality and story that only they can tell.”

Ben Sherick,
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Ben Sherick

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