Caps, gowns, tassels — and face masks.
Add high-school graduation to the long list of American traditions that are being disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic this spring. With school doors still shuttered, very few Washington high-school seniors will be lucky enough to graduate in-person in a ceremony with friends and family watching, and they’ll likely have to wear a mask if they do so.
The most common commencement alternative in Washington’s smaller towns, and many of its larger ones: a prerecorded ceremony that will be posted on district websites on the day when graduation would have taken place.
Still, educators and parents are trying to come up with ways to make the Class of 2020 feel special. They’re planning to use cars to keep people apart, or creating stretched-out, eight-hour-long ceremonies that allow for plenty of social distancing.
In small-town Chehalis, halfway between Seattle and Portland, parents of the Class of 2020 have been planning the June 6 celebration for four years now, said Jamie Holcomb, whose daughter graduates this week.
But when it became clear that neither the ceremony nor the grad night safe-and-sober celebration at a private gym could happen, the parents began looking for alternatives.
Instead, the community is going to throw its seniors a car parade Saturday, headed up by a 100-foot-long decommissioned ladder truck once used by the Bremerton Fire Department. Wearing their caps and gowns, the students in the cars will drive through the middle of town, swing past W.F. West High and end at Stan Hedwall Park, along the Newaukum River, Holcomb said.
Businesses in town are encouraged to change their readerboards to messages of support for the Class of 2020. The cars will be decorated. People will cheer the grads on from an appropriate social distance along the parade route. And when they come to the park, each of the 206 seniors will see their name and photo printed on individual signs posted throughout, an unusual keepsake of graduating during a pandemic.
The Class of 2020 seems to be holding up, despite the disappointments.
“On the surface, they’re doing pretty OK,” said Holcomb, who owns an event-planning business.
“My daughter personally goes through highs and lows,” she said. “We had to get her into her cap and gown and send a picture in to the district. That made her sad. She hates that she missed out on prom.”
The Class of 2020 parents had $22,000 tucked away in a fund they had intended for presents and for the safe-and-sober party, part of a long tradition of giving out prizes during graduation. Back in November, on Black Friday, they bought a stash of electronics to hand out as presents — TVs, fitness watches, headphones, mini-fridges and Bluetooth speakers, to name a few. Every graduating student will receive either a prize or $100 cash, Holcomb said.
Chehalis has been working to improve its four-year graduation rate and encourage more students to go to college. In 2019, according to a Partnership For Learning report, 95% of students graduated from high school in four years — 14 percentage points higher than the state average. And about 73% of graduates had enrolled in postsecondary education in 2018, a 9 percentage-point increase from 2016. Almost half the students in the district are low-income.
In the San Juan Islands, the district came to the heartbreaking conclusion last month that even if the county reached Phase 2 by graduation day, June 6, the state’s public-health rules for reopening still wouldn’t allow for a ceremony, said Friday Harbor High School Principal Fred Woods.
It was a disappointment, because in normal years, graduation on the island is “quite a production — it’s always packed,” he said.
To honor the students in a different way, parents collected photos of every one of the 77 graduates and turned them into banners. They’re attached to light posts on Spring Street in downtown Friday Harbor.
There was talk of delaying commencement until August, but under the state’s rules, the county would need to be in Phase 4 to hold a ceremony, Woods said — and many students might have moved away from the islands by that point.
Instead, like so many other districts, they’re filming a virtual commencement. Starting in late May, students came in one by one to the school gymnasium as a video company recorded their solitary movements. “You walk onto the screen to get the diploma, you pick it up off a table, and you walk out,” Woods said. “And that’s staggered — you can only have a couple of kids at a time.”
A similar production is planned in Yakima, a COVID-19 hot spot. The district was planning for drive-in graduation events, but those had to be called off as the virus surged. Some schools were planning for students to watch virtual graduation recordings while seated in their cars, but the risk was deemed too great.
At Tahoma High School in Covington, the district hopes to conduct a slow-rolling, eight-hour-long graduation ceremony for its 600 seniors, provided King County has moved to Phase 2 of the governor’s reopening plan by June 10. The district is seeking permission from the county health department to conduct the ceremony.
Students and families will be given a specific time slot to appear on campus, and will get to walk through school for a final look. Then they’ll walk onto a stage on the football field, pick up their diploma cover, pose for a photo, turn their tassel and leave the stage, said Tahoma district communications director Kevin Patterson. Masks are required attire, and parents can sit in the bleachers to watch, but everyone must leave afterward.
Like many other schools, Port Angeles High School is producing a virtual celebration — a video featuring speeches, a slide show featuring each graduate’s accomplishments and plans for the future, and music performances. The video will be posted June 12. That’s the only official district event, but parents and community members are planning other events, such as a driving procession, said district spokeswoman Jennifer Sperline.
Parents in the neighboring Crescent School District, which borders Port Angeles to the west, are planning “an unconventional prom” for Crescent High seniors. It’s called the “Roaring ‘Rona ‘20s senior swing-through” and will feature photos and food booths, with the instruction, as always, to practice social distancing.
In Eastern Washington, a few districts — including Walla Walla and Pullman — are planning to use local drive-in movie theaters to project their graduation ceremonies on a big screen while everybody watches from their cars.
“The best thing I’ve noticed is that all of these kids seem to be really resilient,” said Holcomb, the Chehalis parent. “Most are just picking up the pieces, and working forward at this point.”