By Mary Kate McGrath - June 11, 2020
Across the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced schools to close and cancel many senior year rights of passage, including prom and graduation. Many high school teachers and administrators have found unique ways to honor seniors, from socially-distant compliant car parades and virtual graduation ceremonies.
Meanwhile, families feeling the loss of such rituals are finding unique ways to celebrate as well, with backyard ceremonies or taking photos outside the campus with a cap and gown to have a lasting memory. This is what K-12 graduations look like in 2020, and while it may not be the conventional right-of-passage, communities are doing everything in their power to make sure graduates’ accomplishments are acknowledged.
Many celebrities have also come together to provide a meaningful commencement for high school graduates. On May 16, LeBron James hosted a prime-time tv graduation ceremony for seniors, with Malala Yousafzai, the Jonas Brothers, Yara Shahidi, Pharrell Williams, Lena Waithe, and Megan Rapinoe among guest speakers, as per CNN. “These students have worked incredibly hard for this and there's no way we can let that go unrecognized,” Lebron said in a statement. “While this won't be the graduation experience they were supposed to get, we hope we can still give them something special because they deserve it.” The NBA star went on to say that the ceremony would offer a “shared experience” to students missing out due to coronavirus, bringing together, “students, parents, educators, community members, and everyone around them” online.
Locally, communities have come together to create innovative community events, while still complying with social distancing to reduce COVID-19 risk. From coast to coast, K12 schools have created new models for graduation ceremonies, celebrating students' success with car parades, lawn signs, virtual yearbooks, and backyard ceremonies. Check out some of the sweet tributes communities across the country have put together for K-12 graduates.
In Oxford, Connecticut, Oxford High School celebrated with a graduation car parade in lieu of the usual pomp and circumstance, as per CT Post. Students may have missed out on sporting events, senior nights, and the annual prom, but had the opportunity to don a cap and gown to participate in a car parade past their middle school and high school. Instead of gathering in a gymnasium or football field, students and their families sat in their cars and listened to speeches on an AM radio. During the parade, townspeople clapped and cheered from the sidewalk as they passed.
Boulder High School in Colorado planned a similar event, with students in their caps and gowns circling the school in cars as teachers, family, and friends, from a proper social-distance, line the route with signs and cheer, hoping to offer some joy amid the disappointing cancellation, as per the New York Times. Similarly, South Side High School in Louisiana planned a “Drive-in movie” style graduation, with graduates gathering in cars in the Nassau Coliseum, as per LI Herald. Students pushed faculty to host the event in a single location, and the ceremony will be broadcast on a giant LED screen and broadcast on an FM radio station so all can listen from their car. Only one car per graduate will be allowed on the lot, but the venue can hold up to 300 people, and all participants will drive along a parade route following the ceremony.
Today's parade was organized by the #PaloAlto school district in lieu of traditional ceremonies that have been banned due to the #COVID_19 crisis. Students and their families have decorated their cars and graduation caps to mark the milestone. pic.twitter.com/NimDAEDCpT— Palo Alto Weekly (@paloaltoweekly) June 4, 2020
One other solution for K-12 schools has been to hold socially-distant ceremonies. In Washington, Acalanes High School has a tentative plan to have students walk - at scheduled times - down the empty corridor decorated with memories form the senior year, out the school entrance, and across a stage to get their diplomas form the principal if public health officials allow it, or pick it up from a table, as per the New York Times. If given the green light, all participants would wear masks for the ceremonial walk. “I’ve been so impressed by the effort that the school and our community have made to support the seniors,” one parent told the publication. “Acalanes has this saying now of ‘Community Can’t Be Canceled,’ and it’s really been so supportive.”
COVID-19: Jared, your graduation is cancelled.— Jason “Tik Tok Doc” Campbell MD (@DrJCoftheDC) June 7, 2020
Jared: But, have you met my momma? pic.twitter.com/j8UJM29Z2G
Many school districts are also finding unique ways to celebrate seniors, regardless of whether or not an in-person, virtual, or drive-thru ceremony seems fitting. Caseville, Michigan hung banners with on lamp posts that line the street in town with senior photos and names, which students will get to keep following commencement season, according to EduTopia. Similarly, parents in Hillsdale, New Jersey, distributed yard signs to parents, and lit the football stadium up each night for 20 minutes in honor of the Class of 2020.
Seniors: Today is your day at UHS. There is a sign for each of you on our campus. Please visit to get the your sign. As the signs were planted this morning, administrators and class advisers thought of each of you. We miss you and wish you all the best on our graduation day. pic.twitter.com/4nzgKjxIPd— Urbana HS (MD) (@UHS_FCPS) June 4, 2020
Local businesses have been decorating windows to honor graduates, and some dropped off custom signs for parents, as per People. “ It's such a hard time for everyone and we are all constantly thinking about the things we are missing out on,” senior Taylor Despres of Downers Grove South High School in Downers Grove, Illinois, told the publication. “But being able to see the community doing all that they can to support us and guide us through this tough time — from the small details like the door being decorated to the school dropping off signs to every senior — it just gives us validation during this hard time.”
Congratulations on your graduation, @Malala! We're honored to share your words and celebrate you as a member of the unstoppable Class of 2020. #DearClassof2020https://t.co/dajFzsKVHq pic.twitter.com/jB8NQ915nD
— YouTube (@YouTube) June 7, 2020
Of course, virtual ceremonies and events are also a common way to celebrate seniors. Some schools have created “virtual yearbooks”, allowing students to check out where their peers are attending college, look back on accomplishments from high school, or simply reflect on fun memories from school events. Others are opting for virtual ceremonies, with speakers creating pre-recorded memories that students and their families can tune into from home. While these events may not share the same impact as an in-person commencement ceremony, many communities across the country are coming together to make this right of passage feel more legitimate.
Leverage a mass notification system to involve the whole community - SMS Opt-In can help students, families, teachers, and staff get more information about virtual or socially-distanced graduation events. Administrators can set a particular code - such as GRADUATION - that participants can text to a present number. Those who opt-in will receive real-time updates about where the event is taking place, any changes as the situation develops, or other pertinent information, like how many cars are permitted at a drive-in ceremony, or where caps and gowns will be distributed in a safe manner before the event.
Make sure that all community members are able to be informed, as all graduates deserve to have this important right of passage before moving on the the next stage of their live.
Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.
After K-12 schools across the United States closed their doors back in March, school leaders have been trying to...