People are furious over 2020 graduation ceremonies, the latest coronavirus political battleground
Keiv Soliman doesn’t want to receive his diploma joined onstage by a hologram of his principal.
But as the coronavirus continues to cast a shadow on American traditions, making large gatherings like graduation ceremonies dangerous, a virtual ceremony might be the Highland High School senior’s only chance at pomp and circumstance.
Soliman’s school, in Gilbert, Arizona, is staging an elaborate virtual graduation ceremony, where Highland seniors will be filmed walking across a stage to receive their diploma.
Their principal will read student names from a different room. Using “holographic technology,” video editors will then edit the ceremony to make it appear as if everyone was in the same room together.
But Soliman’s friends don’t want a studio-produced graduation, he said. They want a real ceremony. Soliman started a petition, which has more than 600 signatures so far, asking for an in-person ceremony — with masks and social distancing.
“You can’t really replace the real thing with anything but the real thing,” Soliman said.
Graduation ceremonies have become a political battleground for schools, students and parents in the wake of school closures caused by the coronavirus. Some believe they can have a ceremony safely while others are accusing the high-schoolers and their parents of being selfish during a global pandemic.
“This is much bigger than a graduation ceremony,” said Reed Burris, a Gilbert resident opposed to in-person ceremonies. “You should be pushing for people to stay inside.”
Soliman’s petition is one of more than 500 on Change.org, pleading for the preservation of in-person ceremonies across the U.S.
Not the real thing, but… Students will cross the finish line to high school with a lap at the Daytona 500In Knoxville, Tennessee, district leaders backpedaled on a plan to hold graduation without guests when parents revolted.
“There’s a lot more involved in these ceremonies than a student getting a paper diploma and turning their tassel,” Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs said.
The discourse shares similarities with the fervent demonstrations staged for and against reopening America’s businesses, as well as the debate over the use of masks in public places. The rancor underscores an increasingly fractured conversation around COVID-19.
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Uncertainty looms over ceremonies
Arizona’s stay-at-home order expired Friday. The governor is still encouraging social distancing, but nothing in his new order appears to forbid gatherings.
The Arizona Department of Health Services recommended last week “that mass gatherings (such as graduations, concerts) are not held at this time.”
Still, the agency outlined steps for attendees and organizers to take if they planned to forge ahead with a ceremony:
- Anyone sick should stay home.
- Attendees should stay 6 feet away from each other.
- Anyone in a high-risk group should not attend, including older adults and anyone with a serious underlying medical condition.
- Attendees should not touch their eyes, nose or mouth and should use hand sanitizer after leaving the event. They should also wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds upon returning home.
- Attendees should cover their faces at the event.
- They should not borrow or rent graduation regalia.
Major Arizona school districts have either postponed ceremonies or have decided to hold virtual ceremonies.
Chandler Unified, the second-largest school district in the state, wrote to families May 5 that the district was working on a plan to hold graduation ceremonies at each high school “while still adhering to the recommended CDC guidelines.”
At the ceremonies, students would be seated 6 feet apart and the audience would likely be limited. The ceremonies would be livestreamed for families to watch.
One superintendent in suburban Milwaukee initially resisted the idea of a virtual graduation because it made the emotional event seem so impersonal.
Back in early April, Wauwatosa School District Superintendent Phil Ertl said he hoped to just keep pushing back the date of an in-person ceremony for as long as it took to do it safely. But by early May, his district had gone the route of many others, with a planned video celebration set for June 7.
“We are also still hanging on to July 26 in hopes that we can do something in person,” Ertl said this month. “So much is changing. To cancel that date right now doesn’t make sense to me.”
Pleas for the show to go on
People in at least nine school districts across Arizona have started Change.org petitions to hold in-person graduation ceremonies.
After Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey announced that businesses could start to reopen, a group of Arizona seniors made a video pleading for an in-person ceremony.
“There are ways we can make this happen,” one of the students in the video said. “We deserve a graduation.”
The video was posted on Twitter and received nearly 100 retweets. But some who responded to the tweet scoffed at the idea.
“You’re asking to put your friends’ parents at risk of dying so you can feel accomplished for a completely normal and baseline accomplishment,” one Twitter user responded.
Others have tried to come up with alternatives to graduation.
Beth Obermeyer, who works with high school students at New Foundation church in Goodyear, held driveway graduations for seniors. Using a megaphone, church staff surprised students by showing up on their driveway and holding impromptu celebrations, 6 feet apart.
“We were trying to think of a way to make our high school seniors feel better because they’ve had such a rough spring,” Obermeyer said.
In Great Falls, Montana, district officials said they did not want the coronavirus to end the tradition of graduating seniors’ ringing a school bell. Officials are leaving the bell in the school’s parking lot for students to ring.
If students choose to ring the bell, they are asked to maintain social distancing, wear the supplied disposable gloves and sanitize hands before and after ringing the bell. The school is setting up a hand-sanitizing station.
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Some have said schools are being too cautious.
A group of Mountain View High parents in Mesa, Arizona, threw a senior salute parade for grads. Seniors on May 16 lined up 6 feet apart on the sidewalk of a Mesa street for cars to drive by in celebration.
Destinee Mack, a parent and one of the event’s organizers, initially asked the district whether parents could drop their student off in the high school’s parking lot so the students could safely line up.
Mesa Public Schools denied that request, Mack said. Mesa did not respond to a request for comment.
“I do think there’s a risk, but I do also think that if we follow the social distancing protocols … I think we can still do this in a socially responsible way,” Mack said.
Contributing: Erin Richards, USA TODAY; Monica Kast, Knoxville News Sentinel; Skylar Rispens, Great Falls Tribune