The statewide shelter-in-place order issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom just over a month ago has created untold complications for local school administrators, not the least of which is how to handle graduation ceremonies for students who have been working toward this significant milestone for most of their lives.
“Our students have made an exceptional effort over a dozen years to reach this point,” said Maureen Byrne, principal at Dublin High School. “They have earned the right to have a ceremony recognizing their accomplishments. Due to the fact that we will be practicing remote learning through the remainder of the school year, we have decided the best thing to do at this point is to explore a remote graduation. We want it to be special and personal, so we will keep as many of the traditions as possible.”
With graduation season starting shortly after Memorial Day, the clock is ticking for school officials who must figure out how to completely retool a time-honored tradition under restrictions that few, if any, have ever contemplated.
“Hopefully by the end of this coming week, we will have made a decision to the extent that any decision can be made these days,” said Philomena Rambo, director of community engagement with Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District (LVJUSD). “These kids deserve a celebration. This is a milestone in their lives, and they’ve worked hard for it. For many of our kids, this isn’t their final graduation, but it’s a big deal. We want to celebrate with them.”
Just before spring break, Rambo sent surveys to LVJUSD seniors and parents that offered several graduation options, solicited new ideas and gave recipients an opportunity to volunteer for a committee to make a final recommendation regarding the ceremony. The ultimate decision will be made by the high school principals in consultation with Superintendent Dr. Kelly Bowers.
“We had 600 parents volunteer to be on this 25-person committee, and 300 students who volunteered,” Rambo said. “That just shows me how important this is to them.”
Districts are looking at a variety of options, most of which center on use of remote technology. With graduation only weeks away, officials are not holding out any hope that this year’s ceremony will look anything like graduations of years in the past.
“We are looking at a lot of virtual options,” said Dr. Dave Marken, superintendent of the Dublin Unified School District. “But you can’t congregate. You can’t have Grandma and Grandpa drive up from Fresno to attend the ceremony. We are considering remote and virtual aspects.”
Other suggestions include a socially distanced graduation, a drive-thru ceremony or a parade. One idea was to delay the ceremony until later in the summer with the hope that restrictions will have loosened to the point that some semblance of a traditional event can be put together. Neither Rambo nor Marken see that as a viable alternative.
“When we spoke to a lot of students. They were like, ‘No. We're peace out,’” Marken said. “They’re all going to college. They’re going to work. If it isn’t happening now, they’re not coming back. And I get that. Once school is over and your senior year is gone, you’re out. I don’t blame them.”
The graduation ceremony conundrum isn’t limited to the high schools. Elementary schools face a similar issue, albeit on a smaller scale, as students transition from eighth grade to high school.
“As a K-8 school, our eighth grade promotion ceremony is a very special occasion for us as most of our students have been with us for nine years,” said Molleen Barnes, Sunol Glen Unified School District superintendent. “We will be making a definitive decision the first week of May. But as of now — and what is most likely to be the plan — is a virtual graduation whereby we have the eighth-grade lead teachers and myself give short speeches, we show a video collage of all of our 33 graduates, and then announce each graduate's name.”
No matter what form graduation takes for the class of 2020, Marken holds few illusions. He said any option short of a walk across the football field in front of thousands of friends, family and teachers will pale by comparison.
“That’s the sad part,” he said.
Like Marken, Rambo understands that her students’ graduation experience will be less than complete and is trying to frame that for them in the context of our current pandemic-related challenges.
“I’ve really tried to convey our joint sadness and desire to honor these kids but also to somehow help them pull back and realize that this is us in a time that is so unusual that life can’t be usual.”