Some area parents are urging school district officials to plan for in-person graduation ceremonies and asking state officials to outline guidelines to ensure events could be held in person.
Mohonasen parents, for instance, are envisioning a special ceremony at the high school football field, with students separated at a distance and attendance limited to parents – or even just the students – as a way to give graduating seniors one last chance to mark their time together.
“This is doable and we are pleading with the governor to let us do it,” said Pamela Young, a Mohonasen school board member and the parent of a high school senior. “To have them back together one more time safely, we can do it, it’s doable.”
Mohonasen holds a litany of senior events, long-held traditions that students wait for every year, including a senior breakfast, a senior picnic, awards banquests, a walkthrough at the elementary schools and more. With those events all likely off the table, parents hope the graduation ceremony can provide seniors a lasting memory of their final days as Mohonasen students.
“All of those things have not happened and probably will not happen,” said Denise Lagasse, whose son is a Mohonasen senior. “I think the most appropriate way for them to make a positive light of their senior [year] is to actually have some kind of ceremony for them to be together and see each other.”
The parents said their primary concern is the health and safety of students, school staff and family members, adding that they were confident that an in-person event of some kind could be held safely.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Friday ordered school facilities closed for the remainder of the academic year. However, he has not yet specified if or what types of graduation ceremonies will be allowed.
Young said she wanted state officials to provide guidance that would allow districts to submit plans for graduaion ceremonies that outlined how the district planned to keep everyone safe. She said with just over 200 graduates, the Mohonasen ceremony would be a different kind of undertaking than larger districts and argued districts should be allowed to develop plans at a local level based on guidelines provided by the state.
Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, who represents Mohonasen, Schalmont and parts of the Schenectady city school districts, sent a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week, asking for health and safety guidelines that would enable districts to hold some form of in-person graduation ceremony.
“Many parents in my local school districts have voiced their plea to hold some form of ceremony in an open area such as a football field, maintaining social distancing protocols with all students six feet apart and no audience,” Santabarbara wrote in the letter.
In an interview, Santabarbara said while it might not be possible or safe for districts across the state to hold in-person graduation events, he thinks some districts may be able to hold limited in-person ceremonies. He urged the governor to outline what districts would need to do to hold such a ceremony.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it’s a rite of passage,” Santabarbara said of high school graduations. “We owe it to them to at least explore this possibility.”
In an update posted a couple of weeks ago, Mohonasen Superintendent Shannon Shine noted that he has heard from many parents about graduation and said one parent summed up the concerns well by saying “the general consensus among parents is we want to see the kids together, physically, in one location.”
Shine said that the district was exploring ways to provide an “in person” graduation while adhering to social distancing protocols, but also noted that the state’s ban on large group gatherings is still in effect.
Last week, the district posted a survey on its website asking parents and others to provide feedback on three potential graduation options: a virtual ceremony with pre-recorded speeches and a voice-over reading of all senior names; an event at the high school football field, limited to students and their parents arriving at staggered times to receive their diplomas if graduations aren’t granted exceptions to the ban on large-group gatherings, and a ceremony held at a drive-in movie theater and streamed live on the movie screen.
The potential drive-in graduation would give the district a chance to hold a live event, with speeches displayed on the movie screen as families watched from the safety of their cars. If permitted by the state, graduates could “walk” and receive their diplomas at a safe distance. But the event would have to be delayed until after 9 p.m., and some parents expressed concerns about the logistics of holding an event away from the school.
Parents interviewed for this article said a virtual ceremony streamed online would not satisfy their desire to give the senior class a memorable event and an opportunity to be in the presence of their classmates.
“Everything has become virtual,” said Jen Farnsworth, the parent of a Mohonasen senior. “That’s ok for day-to-day life, but for a major milestone something that is completely virtual seems gut wrenching to me.”
Other districts are also starting to plan for potential graduation ceremonies, but it’s still unclear what will and will not be allowed by late June.
Valerie O’Dell, the mother of a Schalmont senior, reached out to Santabarbara’s office in recent days to voice her fears that seniors won’t be allowed to celebrate with a graduation ceremony. She said students have been working for 13 years to reach graduation and deserve the recogntion they have earned. She said Schalmont leaders are working to develop a plan, one that may not ensure the kind of in-person event she hopes for, but one that will provide students some form of recognition. At the very least, she wants an opportunity to get the classic graduate picture.
“I definitely would like to see him in a cap and gown at a minimum,” O’Dell said of her son.
Schenectady High School Prinicpal Diane Wilkinson on Friday said the school has started to brainstorm different ideas for holding a graduation ceremony this spring. She said that while she is awaiting more details about what will be allowed, she is focused on gathering input from students and parents about what they want.
After developing potential ceremony options, Wilkinson plans to survey parents and students to see what kind of event they are interested in holding. She said it’s too early to know whether it will be possible to bring students together, but noted the importance of doing something to give students “the sense of community, the sense of accomplishment.”
“It hurts my heart, because I know how much they just wanted to be together and have that moment together,” said Wilkinson, who is retiring at the end of this school year after 32 years as an educator. “How do we create a special moment for our seniors, because they deserve it, they have worked incredibly hard.”