High school graduations in a pandemic- making the best of a bad situation

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by Robert Matheson
Special to the North Grenville Times

Despite the hopes of Premier Doug Ford’s and many graduating students, local high schools are taking the cautious approach to graduations again this year.

While announcing June 2 that schools would remain closed to in-person learning until September, Ford surprised everyone by saying he wanted schools to hold outdoor ceremonies to help graduates cap off a year of turmoil.

It was a small glimmer of hope in an otherwise dismal school year. School boards were quick to snuff it out, saying they would stick to their plans to host virtual ceremonies based on input from local health units. The news was disappointing for graduates of the two local English-language high schools, but not unexpected.

“I mean, simply put it’s been pretty miserable,” said Davan Pignon, a graduate at North Grenville District High School. “Since grade 7 you get to watch each grade have their senior year, with sports and buy-ins, and proms. It’s hard to have it all ripped away from you.”

“It’s still pretty heartbreaking. You always look forward to your final days of high school,” added the 18-year-old, who is off to the University of Hawai’i to study marine science. “The warm weather and the excitement with all the kids you’ve grown with the past years. It hits you pretty hard when you realize you’re not going to be able to have that.”

It has been difficult for parents to deal with too. They know how memorable the last year of high school should be. It has been disappointing seeing all of the big milestone events of the final year of high school disappear or be scaled down.

“Graduation, and the events that surround it, give our children the opportunity to have a grand closure to these relationships and experiences,” said Sandy Pignon, Davan’s mother. “This is what I feel Davan and all of the graduates are missing out on this year. It is one more burden they must bear due to a pandemic that is beyond their control.”

Some parents are trying to make this week as memorable as possible for their graduates. They have organized their own events to make up for what is missing. Lori Churchill is going to decorate her lawn with balloons and banners. She has arranged for friends and family members to drive by to fete Hunter, who is graduating from St. Michael Catholic High School.

“It’s hard, because our oldest graduated two years ago and we had the full celebration with family and friends,” Lori said. “He had prom excitement, pictures with all his friends and family. These kids aren’t getting that. They also miss out on saying goodbye to their teachers that were such a large part of their lives for the last six years.”

Officials at St. Michael and North Grenville District High School have done their best to create memorable virtual events and other socially-distanced opportunities. Students at both schools will be invited to watch pre-recorded graduation ceremonies, including award announcements and valedictorian addresses. Graduates have also been invited to sign-up for a time slot to pick up their diploma, don their cap and gown, and have a photo taken to commemorate the special occasion. “We tried to include some sort of an experience with a photo opportunity,” said Chris Finner, the Head of Communications at St. Michael Catholic High School. “Something that has a little more of a human touch, but unfortunately not a full-out graduation in the field.”

“I think we all now have a greater appreciation of the importance of authentic human connection,” Chris said. “It’s unfortunate that the current situation does not allow for that to happen at graduation but, as a school, safety is always the top priority.”

The 117 graduates of St. Michael will be invited to tune into their ceremony on June 27. It will include all of the traditional aspects of a graduation – diplomas, scholarships, and awards. Valedictorian Katelyn McGahey, who was selected by the graduating class, will also address her fellow graduates during the ceremony.

Obviously, graduates like Katie Guthrie were hoping for something different. The 17-year-old will be heading to Queen’s after graduating from St. Michael this year. She has missed out on playing school sports and so much this year. A true grad ceremony is just the latest casualty.

“I’m a bit disappointed, but I’m fine with it,” she said. “I kind of expected it to be virtual. It is a pandemic.”

Parents like Sherrie Guthrie, Katie’s mom, are disappointed for their children. She realizes how much the pandemic has impacted her daughter’s pivotal, final years of school. She appreciates everything that school officials have done to make the most out of difficult circumstances, but knows some things just can’t be replaced.

“I feel like as much as the schools, educators and admin have attempted to have a sense of normalcy during the pandemic, graduates, over the past two years have missed out,” Sherrie said. “The rites of passage, the final year of varsity sports, the social events have been obliterated by the pandemic.”

School officials realize that virtual ceremonies and drive-by events are not ideal. They would have been thrilled to do more, but it simply was not possible. St. Michael’s staff are proud of their graduates, Chris Finner said, and they plan to make sure their students feel special.

“The situation is what it is and I think most people have been resilient and resigned to the fact that we have to adapt and pivot on the spot, and try and figure out the best way.”

The staff at North Grenville DHS are also looking forward to honouring their 140 graduates on June 24. The students and their families will be invited to attend a pre-recorded ceremony via an online link. The ceremony will include an address from valedictorian, Sam Kimball. NGDHS grads have also been asked to sign up for time slots on the 25th for the “Drive Through” part of the graduation. At that time, each graduate will receive their cap and gown, diploma, program, lawn sign, and any awards they may have won. They will also have their photo taken by a photographer.

“Our staff are excited to celebrate the milestones of all of our students, especially after working so hard this year,” read a statement from Valerie Allen, director designate for the Upper Canada District School Board. “In addition to the already planned virtual ceremony, our schools have coordinated either a drive-through event or a home delivery of certificates and mementos from the school, offering that personalized touch.”

“These arrangements were made with our local public health officials in early spring and after recent consultation with them, they continue to support this plan,” Allen added.

Similar ceremonies are planned at local elementary schools to help celebrate their Grade 6 and Grade 8 students. Students will be invited to watch an online “leaving ceremony” with awards, photos, and other special surprises. Special times have also been arranged for students to stop by their respective schools to pick up their graduation gifts.

It might not be the send-off that Premier Doug Ford wanted for students this year, but staff at local schools have been planning for months to make these ceremonies memorable for their students.

“Three years ago, my eldest daughter graduated from NGDHS with an entirely different graduation experience. Grade 12 is a momentous year in one’s high school career,” parent Sandy Pignon said. “I am thankful that the staff at NGDHS are working to give the students a graduation experience.”

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