Districts assembling plans for 2020 graduations

April 27, 2020
With the end of the 2020 academic year just weeks away, district leaders statewide are now confronting another obstacle: graduation. “There is a lot of pain and grief in communities and families around the loss of the end-of-senior-year activities, from proms to picnics to athletics, and losing graduation as everyone has known and experienced is a particular pain point in all of this,” said Michelle Smith McDonald, Alameda County Office of Education director of communications. “The opportunity to plan and create a thoughtful alternative is definitely important.” Last week, the Alameda County Office of Education launched a toolkit for district leaders who are looking for a pathway to create a substantive experience to honor 2020 graduates. The toolkit is available on the ACSA Resource Hub at https://content.acsa.org/distance-learning-2/unbranded-virtual-graduation-ceremony-template. “Many districts will be having conversations about how to pull off an alternate graduation ceremony, and we wanted to provide a tool kit that could be a starting point for thinking about how it could be done without everyone starting with a blank piece of paper in front of them,” Smith McDonald said. Not every district has made a final decision and many are weighing their options. With social distancing and stay-at-home orders still in effect, some districts are considering postponing ceremonies until the summer. Others are looking at the virtual option. But there are challenges, no matter what form or ceremony is being considered. Some of the biggest challenges are around logistics. School districts are weighing the costs of conducting virtual ceremonies, while still holding out hope that they can hold an in-person ceremony. Time, however, is not on anyone’s side. Smith McDonald says there are many schools seeking services to go to the virtual model. However, only a limited pool of people can make these types of ceremonies work. There is also the need to convince school communities, which may prove to be just as hard as finding the resources to plan and execute a virtual graduation. Visalia Unified School District has yet to cancel their traditional commencement ceremonies. VUSD Superintendent Tamara Ravalin says that decision won’t come until the beginning of May. Cap and gown pickup is still scheduled at the high school sites and seniors can pick up customized yard signs to add to the graduation experience.  The district has created two celebrations in place of traditional high school commencement ceremonies in the event holding regular graduation events isn’t prudent. “We will host a drive-through diploma pickup and photo opportunity for graduates in their cap and gown, and there will be two small stages/platforms with backdrops where the graduate can step out and take photographs in their cap and gown,” Ravalin said. “There will be a professional photographer available at that location, and each graduate will be allowed one car and only one person can get out of the car to take photos of the graduate. Social distancing along with other safety protocols will be observed.”
Principal Sandra Wiest hands out distance learning materials to kindergartners and their parents at Dillard Elementary School in Elk Grove Unified School District. 
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VUSD also has plans for virtual commencement ceremonies for high school, middle school and eighth-grade events that include video messages and photos of the students. A committee of administrators drove the planning processes with suggestions from students. While there is still hope among high school seniors and their parents for a traditional ceremony, the district wanted to make sure there was a recognition of the milestone and an opportunity for parents to celebrate with their students. Thus, the idea of the drive-up graduation came to fruition and additional elements are being considered for this ceremony as new ideas come forth. Ravalin has a piece of advice for districts still working on their plans. “Be flexible in your planning and think about the memories you are creating for the students and their families, because milestones help us reflect on what we have achieved and provide us with inspiration to move forward,” she said. “Celebrating the achievements of our youth will encourage them to continue growing – and that is especially important in times of uncertainty such as this. Find ways to customize your celebrations to make them special.”  Smith McDonald says the Alameda COE toolkit is a roadmap on how to get to a virtual ceremony model, however, there is room to determine your own path, and there are examples from higher education about how these ceremonies are done and done well.  “We want districts to know that this is something that can be created for their communities that can truly honor their students differently. Districts just need to communicate with their students and families about what to expect, what the ceremony will be and how they can access it. Clear and thorough communication here is going to be key,” she said. “But hold on to your traditions, even in a virtual way, and find a way to make what has always been unique to your schools and your districts part of this ceremony.”

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