Schools will mark senior graduations with virtual congratulations and ‘drive-through diplomas’
Some senior class traditions survive. The Rainier High School rock is painted for the class of 2020. (Photo courtesy of the Rainier School District)
Umatilla High School senior Blaze Meinke and his friends are calling it a “drive-through diploma.”
And honestly, he says, he’s pretty relieved about Umatilla School District’s plan for a graduation ceremony in the high school parking lot, with families staying in their cars.
“I don’t have to sit there for like six hours,” he said.
The coronavirus pandemic and school closures have laid waste to the usual rituals and rites of passage for the class of 2020. Students and educators all over Oregon are sad for what has been lost but are trying to make the most of highly unusual circumstances.
In its senior graduation guidance, the Oregon Department of Education urges schools to find public ways to celebrate seniors’ accomplishments. Many district leaders are considering rescheduling events – if the pandemic and space availability allow – but they still want to give seniors a few special memories now.
OSBA has collected some examples and resources for school districts looking for ideas.
Educators everywhere are posting pictures and messages from staff on social media. Communities and businesses are partnering with schools to put up individualized signs for seniors.
Umatilla Superintendent Heidi Sipe said the district will keep its May 30 graduation celebration date. Families will be allowed one car per senior at the school, and students can wear their caps and gowns. Teachers and administrators will line the sidewalk, appropriately distanced and masked, to offer congratulations.
Speeches and awards will be livestreamed for people at home and broadcast by radio. The Federal Communications Commission has rules against sending a signal more than 200 feet without a license, but Umatilla’s local radio station stepped up to broadcast the event.
Administrators are planning a parade through all the students’ neighborhoods, encouraging people to honk and wave from their own cars.
Umatilla, a small town northwest of Pendleton, will set off a fireworks display that evening over the Columbia River in honor of the seniors.
The district will do a more traditional graduation ceremony later if possible, Sipe said.
“If the kids want to come back for it, we’ll do it again,” she said.
Many districts are considering ceremonies in late summer. Although by then, many seniors will have moved on with their lives with jobs or post-secondary education. School leaders also worry that ceremonies could get canceled again if closures persist.
The Cascade School District is looking at summer dates but could go as far out as Thanksgiving for a senior weekend, said district spokesperson Madeline Sattler. Tentative plans include a Friday night dance, a Saturday ceremony followed by an all-night party and then a Sunday breakfast and farewell.
Families and students say they want an in-person ceremony, Sattler said. The district southeast of Salem has a high percentage of low-income families, and many seniors are the first in their families to graduate. The whole community tends to come out to celebrate graduations, she said.
St. Helens High School, north of Portland, is tentatively planning a virtual event this year with a special one-year reunion ceremony next year, said Principal Katy Wagner at a recent online meeting of the Oregon Association of Secondary School Administrators.
Drive-in style graduations and car parades through towns are popular ideas for communities that want something this school year, although there are equity concerns about vehicle access.
“You WILL be having a Graduation ceremony!” said an online post by Weston-McEwen High School northeast of Pendleton. The May 28 ceremony will be at the Milton-Freewater Drive-In Theater.
On the coast, Tillamook is considering a drive-in style graduation at the Tillamook County Fairgrounds, said district administrator Jennifer Guarcello. The district would stick with its May 29 graduation date. Families would stay in their cars but be able to watch students’ names and degrees on a big screen.
To celebrate seniors now, many Oregon schools have adopted the national “Be the Light” campaign, lighting up sports fields to honor students. The Twitter hashtag #BeTheLightOR shares stadium pictures as well as messages of praise and appreciation.
In Gold Beach on the south coast, students recently took turns taking pictures on the field with the scoreboard clock that read 20:20.
Grants Pass teacher John Kellogg used the hashtag to share a stirring video of the southern Oregon campus and school.
Rainier Junior/Senior High School has plans to paint #BeTheLightOR on its field and announce seniors’ names over the loudspeakers, according to Principal Graden Blue.
The school in the northwest corner of the state is working on some sort of virtual graduation ceremony, Blue said, and they also want to cook up some surprises for the students.
“We are always online checking to see what other districts are doing,” he said.
Umatilla parents are scrambling to create something special, said Anita Meinke, Blaze’s mother and senior class coordinator.
She said that instead of the usual sober-and-safe party, they want to give seniors gifts such as electronics or things they might need as they move out. Unfortunately, this is also a difficult economic time to be asking businesses for donations.
“We can’t give them the normal graduation, but we might be able to give them something,” she said.
In Astoria, they lit up the Astoria Column in the high school’s purple and gold colors Friday night. The district is considering a graduation ceremony at its sports complex. Families would be able to park cars around the field and watch as seniors parade across the field while a "Pomp and Circumstance" recorded by band students during their distance learning plays. There would be the traditional speeches and cap toss.
Principal Lynn Jackson has vetted the plan with some of his seniors but he plans to survey the whole class before moving ahead. He will also give them the option of a virtual graduation or postponing the ceremony.
The school board has made celebrating seniors a priority, said Chair Grace Laman.
“I can’t imagine losing my last few months of my senior year,” she said. “I want to do everything we can to give them an experience they will remember.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA