“Pomp and Circumstance” will still play over a loudspeaker at Ridley High on graduation day, but there will be no students marching across the Delaware County school’s football field.
Instead, on June 9, students will join a different procession: a parade of cars circling the school’s parking lot, carrying students who will collect their diplomas from masked administrators as their names are announced.
The event will likely take hours, with time slots so not all 470 seniors arrive at the same time, said principal Ken Acker, who struggles to call the event graduation. “It’s so different,” he said.
Across the country, traditional high school graduations have been scuttled by the coronavirus. In the Philadelphia region, with stay-at-home orders still in place, schools are wrestling with how to graduate students whose final year has been transformed by the pandemic.
With state guidance shifting rapidly, schools are getting creative — and some are pushing back, asking those in power to reconsider bans of in-person graduations and other senior gatherings.
In New Jersey, where parents have circulated online petitions pleading for more traditional ceremonies, Gloucester County superintendents have asked state legislators to allow in-person, socially distant graduations.
“We ask you for the opportunity to conduct these ceremonies in June and assure every one of our seniors the opportunity to close their senior year with a sense of normalcy," the superintendents wrote in a letter Tuesday, expressing “complete and total confidence” that students would abide by social-distancing measures. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday that schools could hold vehicle-based ceremonies if people stayed in their cars.
But administrators at schools across the region, including some who see car ceremonies as risky, are taking different approaches. Some are still giving diplomas to students on a stage — by appointment, accompanied by a small number of guests who can join in photos.
“We heard the kids and really asked them what means a lot to them in terms of recognition,” said Jason Bacani, principal at Plymouth Whitemarsh High School. The Montgomery County school has set up its gymnasium to film each student walking across the stage over the course of four days, and plans to combine the clips into a virtual graduation video.
Plymouth Whitemarsh may do a car parade June 10, but only if social distancing is relaxed: School leaders worry about students getting out of their cars to take pictures.
Others are making deliveries to students — including the Lenape Regional School District, whose administrators will deposit pre-bagged diplomas at the doors of 1,650 students. (Administrators will then step 6 feet away, and graduates can come outside for a socially distanced photo.)
Washington Township High School principal Jonathan Strout aims to personally visit the homes of all 537 seniors, delivering gifts purchased with $170,000 in donations from township businesses and community members. “I know they’re hurting, and I want to show that our school is standing behind them,” Strout said.
School leaders say they’re doing everything they can to make the end of the year special for seniors — recognizing that many students feel virtual events won’t do the milestone justice.
Students at Moorestown Friends were clear, Upper School director Meredith Godley said: When polled, 94% said they didn’t want a virtual graduation of any type.
So while the private school is conferring diplomas on June 6 — giving students individual time slots to walk down Moorestown Friends’ Upper School stairs one final, solemn time — it’s reserving three dates for the actual graduation ceremony: one in July, another in August, and the last in November.
At Plymouth Whitemarsh — which, in addition to filming students getting their diplomas, has scheduled a tentative, traditional ceremony July 29 — senior class vice president LeAnne Khuu was grateful for the prospect of an in-person graduation.
"Just having that hope of not giving up so early means a lot,” said Khuu, of Conshohocken, who started a petition last month asking her school to plan a live graduation. Making the event virtual, she said, “took away the importance of it.”
In some cases, school leaders said they planned virtual events because they felt it important to mark the date students had been scheduled to graduate.
“We didn’t want to keep postponing,” said Bob Sokolowski, assistant superintendent in the West Chester Area School District, which is planning virtual graduations for its three high schools the first week of June. “Everybody knows the pathway right now is very unclear.”
The district has planned a tentative in-person ceremony for the last weekend in July.
Philadelphia, with its more than 7,000 seniors, is planning a citywide virtual graduation for June 9. Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. promised a “very special” speaker and a student performance. The district is also planning a virtual after-party that evening. Some individual schools are also planning their own ceremonies.
Some parents have been frustrated that schools aren’t planning in-person ceremonies to happen sooner.
“I honestly don’t see anything wrong with an actual graduation,” said Joey Newman, whose son, Nicholas Matias, is a senior in the Neshaminy School District. “I believe people get more exposure when they go into a supermarket, for sure.” Newman said students could be separated on a football field, "and I would feel safe in the stands.”
Neshaminy has planned a June 27 ceremony, with a fallback date of Aug. 1. Newman said some students might not be available that late in the summer.
School leaders point to state stay-at-home orders, and say they can’t risk endangering people. While some parents have asked why schools can’t replicate the recent socially distant Air Force Academy graduation, Sokolowski said those students had been effectively quarantined on campus, and noted families weren’t in the audience for the ceremony.
On the night of their virtual graduations, Sokolowski envisions West Chester students in caps and gowns in their living rooms, watching the streamed ceremony with their families and taking photos. “It can certainly still be really nice,” he said.
Antigone Antonakakis, a senior at Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees, said it was disheartening to lose out on traditional graduation and other rites of passage, but “it’s more important to encourage people to stay home, to stay healthy, and safe.” To inspire unity, Antonakakis, the student council vice president, enlisted her classmates’ help and compiled a video of high school highlights interspersed with an inspirational message.
Senior Rachel Roda said it almost felt like the world stopped on March 13, the last day of in-person classes for Washington Township High School. The lawn signs, adopt-a-senior movement, and efforts by the school to plan both a virtual graduation and in-person ceremony over the summer are great, she said. But “the motivation to finish everything is definitely harder right now.”
Acker, the Ridley High principal, anticipates teachers lining the sidewalks, spread out, as students drive into the school parking lot on June 9. Though the school is planning a later, in-person graduation, hopefully this summer, Acker said he knows the day will be meaningful, and that he’ll have to issue no-hug reminders.