The Many Ways To Graduate During A Pandemic

May 29, 2020

The COVID-19 crisis has canceled milestones for countless people. Weddings have been pushed back, memorials modified for social distancing and some funerals made digital.

High school graduation is a milestone that may feel a little different for students after e-learning for their final months. In early May, the Illinois State Board of Education made a statement saying schools were not to have typical in-person ceremonies. The board also gave guidelines on how schools can still celebrate.

Jeanelle Phipps’ daughter is graduating from Plano High School this year. When schools first shut down, she made her a promise.

“I might not be able to make the stage walk happen, but I am able to make something happen on the day that her class graduates, for them all to celebrate,” she said.

Plano High School postponed their graduation ceremony for now. So Phipps took it upon herself to organize a car parade for seniors. She created a Facebook page and started reaching out and soon had over 70 cars signed up.

“We are going out to put the parade route and the information for the parade up around local gas stations as long as they will let us,” said Phipps.

She secured the route with local police, and students in their cap and gowns inside decorated cars paraded through Plano.

Plenty of schools are going completely digital for their ceremonies. Hinckley-Big Rock recently streamed its own virtual graduation on YouTube.

Travis McGuire is the superintendent. He says they were really happy with how it went and that they replicated as much as they could from the in-person version.

Students still had their name called, their honors listed and a picture of them shown. There were speeches as well, including one from McGuire, who wanted students to see some of the lessons that can come out of the pandemic.

“What we want you to do is learn how to persevere and certainly you've learned that over the past couple months,” said McGuire.

No graduation ceremony would be complete without everyone tossing their caps in the air at the end. That’s a bit of a challenge digitally, but they made a version of it work with some video editing magic.

“The next person had their cap tossed to them, they put theirs on, move their tassel on and pass it on to their classmates. So it went through the entire class,” he said.

Over at Dixon High School, the principal and administration wanted to take a democratic approach. Margo Empen is the superintendent at Dixon.

“He put all of those options out to our seniors and said, this is your day. This is your culmination. So he let them vote,” said Empen.

They voted to try to bridge the gap between digital and physical ceremonies. Over the course of a few weekends, at a time each had scheduled, students would come to the school in person.

“They will actually come to the high school in their cap and gown, they will walk across the stage, they will get their diploma, they will be photographed,” she said.

During their time slot, they were the only people allowed in the school along with a few family members, the principal and a photographer. It had to be less than 10 people to comply with the state’s orders. Everyone had to wear masks and maintain social distancing.

They weren’t even allowed to shake the principal’s hand. But every walk across the stage is recorded and being spliced into a full graduation ceremony that they’ll post in one long video.

Margo Empen was excited that it could all come together. She says the school, students and families had to adhere to those state board restrictions and also consult with the Lee County Executive Committee. The group is made up of leaders the county health department and local hospitals -- who gave the plan an “A-OK.”

“They said it if the State Board (of Education) and the governor and that IDPH and that are okay with it, so are we,” said Empen.

Many high schools still want to host an in-person graduation ceremony over the summer. But, it’s still unclear from a health and safety standpoint if that could even happen. Or, if it could, what it would actually look like?

In Plano, Jeanelle Phipps says she thinks some students don’t think it’s going to happen.

“A lot of them feel like they're never going to get to walk that stage,” she said.

Even during a health crisis, important life milestones don’t stop coming. People want to recognize them. And Phipps -- and others like her -- are happy to celebrate their family and graduates in whatever way they can -- even if it’s from a distance.