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Utah high school graduation in COVID-19 era: Virtual ceremonies, car parades or delayed rites

Some schools are planning fireworks displays, graduation walk experiences, drive-through diploma presentations

Francisco Calderon, Pleasant Grove High School student body president, tries on his graduation gear as caps, gowns, honor cords and yard signs are distributed to seniors at the school in Pleasant Grove on Wednesday, April 29, 2020. At the end of May, the school will also provide a “graduation walk” experience at the school over four days. Graduates and their immediate family will schedule a time to enter the auditorium, where “Pomp and Circumstance” will be playing and students’ names will be read over the school’s sound system.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Give Pleasant Grove High School its due. It plans to send out the Class of 2020 with a bang.

More precisely, fireworks and the lighting of the “G” on the hillside above Pleasant Grove on May 28.

That will be preceded by the streaming of a graduation ceremony video to include speeches by honor graduates, student leaders and a school board member as well as musical numbers, a highlight video and pictures of each member of the Class of 2020.

At the end of May, the school will also provide a “graduation walk” experience at the school over four days. Graduates and their immediate family will schedule a time to enter the auditorium, where “Pomp and Circumstance” will be playing and students’ names will be read over the school’s sound system. Students dressed in their caps and gowns can pose for photographs at the school’s block PG, receive their diploma cover from the principal and exit the auditorium to receive their diploma and printed graduation program.

When public health restrictions are lifted, “we will provide a senior celebration event to allow our Class of 2020 to gather together again,” an email to the community by Principal Steve Stewart states.

Much hinges on the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Guidance issued by Gov. Gary Herbert urges school districts to work with their local health departments as they develop graduation plans.

“As the Class of 2020 prepares for one of the defining moments of any generation, high school graduation, it is up to all of us to ensure these students receive the recognition they have earned in as safe an environment as possible. We appreciate your efforts in planning for a virtual format, suspending formal ceremonies until it is deemed safe, or a combination of both,” Herbert wrote in a recent letter to school superintendents.

The Salt Lake City Board of Education voted Tuesday to postpone commencement until conditions permit in-person graduation ceremonies. The school board also voiced its support for other observances that are being organized by district high schools to celebrate the Class of 2020.

Board President Melissa Ford said she recently watched a livestream of her son Josh’s basic military training graduation, which was both a “privilege” and “a bit of sadness.”

The soldiers sat 6 feet apart and it was just them in the room, she said.

“It’s not the same thing as being there in person,” Ford said.

Salt Lake City School District seniors have worked hard to graduate, she said.

“I definitely feel like we want to celebrate them and support the conversations that they’re having at the school on ways to support them,” Ford said.

Meanwhile, the Jordan School Board conducted a similar conversation Tuesday evening but arrived at a different approach.

Jordan School District’s high schools will conduct virtual graduation ceremonies with the assistance of a private vendor. The videos will be released on the day of the previously scheduled graduation ceremonies.

District officials recently met with Salt Lake County public health officials to inquire whether schools could also conduct “stay-in-your car” parades to honor graduates, culminating with a school administrator or school board member presenting each graduate with their diploma cover while they remain in their vehicles.

Diplomas will be mailed to each graduate, said Superintendent Anthony Godfrey.

Although he voted to support the plans, board member Darrell Robinson asked administrators how the diploma presentation would be handled.

“Are they coming up and we’re handing it (to them) or are we just tossing it in the car when they drive by?”

Brad Sorensen, administrator of Jordan District high schools, said the health department is calling for “minimal interaction, so to be able to hand that to them in the car was appropriate in their opinion.”

“We’re not really even hand shaking, we’re just handing it to them, right? We wouldn’t have to have rubber gloves and masks and all that?” Robinson asked.

Sorensen replied that “we did talk about, as part of the appropriate social distancing guidelines, that masks are encouraged.”

The board also discussed providing its own gift to graduates, perhaps a fireworks display, commemorative pins or plaques at each school honoring the Class of 2020.

Sorensen said surveys of students, parents and staff helped shape the recommendations presented to the board, which also include — when large gatherings can safely resume — an event such as a senior dinner followed by a yearbook party that could also be attended by sophomores and juniors.

“That’s tentative ... whatever that activity looks like, we want to ensure and promise to our graduating seniors as well as our current sophomores and juniors the opportunity to get together one more time at the appropriate time and the appropriate way to celebrate and say goodbye to those they have yet had the opportunity to do so,” Sorensen said.