It was mid-morning in mid-May, and Alicianna Mora walked across the stage in the auditorium at Kelloggsville High School as her name was announced.
With a big smile, clad in her graduation cap and gown, she greeted Principal Jim Alston, received her diploma and stopped to pose for pictures. In the otherwise-empty auditorium, her family cheered, celebrating the pomp and circumstance of the moment, celebrating their graduate. On stage, Alicianna smiled broadly.
Welcome to high school graduation in a time of COVID-19.
For Alicianna, who plans to attend GRCC for two years and then Western Michigan University, it wasn’t how she expected her graduation to go when she began her senior year last fall, but she was otherwise unfazed by the circumstances.
“I’m glad to say I’m a 2020 grad, and wouldn’t want it any other way,” she said. “I was really appreciative that my family was able to come and celebrate with me and thankful that I did get to walk the stage.”
Over the course of four days, each graduate from Kelloggsville High School and 54th Street Academy was given the chance to walk the stage with a limited number of guests in attendance.
Each grad’s moment in the spotlight was recorded on video. Those individual clips will then become part of a larger, approximately 45-minute video that will be given to all grads on a flash drive. It will include every walk across the stage, the valedictorian and salutatorian speeches, individual graduation photos, family photos and more.
Vehicle-Based Senior Salutes
The school also did a special “Drive-Thru Senior Send-Off” on May 14, what would have been the night of its traditional graduation ceremony. The event saw seniors line up their vehicles on a side street, make a brief sojourn down Division Avenue, and then loop through the high school parking lot where district staff ringed the roadway to cheer and celebrate the Class of 2020. Every senior was also given a plaque with their name on it, a graduation yard sign and a gift pack.
Across Kent County this spring and across the nation, high schools have had to scramble in similar ways as they decide how to properly salute their seniors. The national class of 2020, which has persevered through so much, was celebrated with a television special and livestream hosted by basketball star LeBron James and the XQ Institute.
At Comstock Park High School, seniors also are invited to take part in a vehicle-based Senior-Staff Sendoff on May 20. Members of the Class of 2020 are to drive along the back parking lot by the football field, where high school staff will line up to cheer on their students and give them gifts while practicing social distancing.
Sparta High School is scheduled to have a Parade of Graduates on May 29, with grads and their families in vehicles decorated with their names and future plans. The high school also was finalizing plans to celebrate grads with a virtual awards night (using Facebook and Twitter) and hopes to hold in-person commencement in late June either in its stadium, gymnasium or parking lot, depending on what the state regulations allow.
Some Still Hoping for In-Person Ceremonies
Like Sparta, other area schools also were hoping to still hold traditional in-person graduations. Byron Center pushed all its normal activities – everything from a senior awards assembly to commencement to its athletic awards night – to late July, looking for a summertime COVID-19 reprieve to be able to pursue business as usual.
East Kentwood as well hopes for an in-person event later in the summer, pending Health Department regulations, but also was working to create a virtual ceremony with speeches, reading of names and pictures of graduates. And Rockford officials have tentatively scheduled a July 21 in-person ceremony if social distancing restrictions are lifted by then.
’They truly made sure we could get recognition for the things we accomplished throughout high school.’— Salutatorian Kevin Ton
At East Grand Rapids High School, dates in late June and early August are being held for a traditional commencement at the school’s Memorial Field, but senior members of the Student Council also are working with teachers and administration to create a virtual graduation ceremony should the need arise.
Similar contingency plans were being made at Grand Rapids Public Schools, Forest Hills, Wyoming and many more. In GRPS, virtual graduations will be held June 3, 4 and 5, including recorded speeches by valedictorians and salutatorians, and a recorded processional featuring photos of graduates and virtual presentations of diplomas. When social distancing requirements are lifted, the district also aims to provide an opportunity for students to walk across the stage, said interim Superintendent Ron Gorman.
Recognizing High School Accomplishments
At Kelloggsville High School, Principal Alston said that the response from graduates and parents was overwhelmingly positive. Of 155 total graduates, 139 walked across the auditorium stage.
He noted that the school had a little pushback early on from parents who had hoped in-person graduation could still happen. But he said even they were impressed by the new format after they witnessed it in person.
“Parents loved the intimate and personal feeling of being able to watch their graduate receive their diplomas,” he said. “Overall, this week went better than we had hoped.”
Senior salutatorian Kevin Ton, who put together a 17-minute video that recapped the year and spotlighted many members of the Kelloggsville High and 54th Street Academy senior class, agreed.
Kevin, who plans to attend Oakland University, said he appreciated the extra effort put in by the administration to make his last week of high school feel special.
“The fact that they took all the time to plan it and carefully organize how it was,” he said, “shows they truly made sure we could get recognition for the things we accomplished throughout high school.”