From sea to ski: Administrators get creative with 2020 graduation ceremonies

For the last 13 years, teachers, counselors and school leaders have told the class of 2020 to figure out ways to be successful, to find a way around adversity and not give up when the going gets tough.

“We are always teaching students to overcome challenges and have a growth mindset,” said Thomas Rompella, principal at Somerset Island Prep in the Florida Keys. “We tell them you’ve got to find a way to get your homework done or finish a project. Now, it was our turn to find a way.”

As the coronavirus pandemic set in, seniors gave up many rites of passage in a collective effort to flatten the curve. No one knew the day schools closed this spring would be the last day they would walk the halls among their classmates. There would be no victory laps around their old elementary schools. No senior skip days, Baccalaureate addresses or scholarship ceremonies. No last spring sport season. Most 2020 seniors didn’t have an official prom.

Yet many administrators from districts large and small were determined to send seniors off in a memorable — and socially distanced — graduation ceremony students and families would not forget.

Riding the wave

Somerset Island Prep, located in the Florida Keys, handed out diplomas to jet-ski-riding seniors. Not only is jet skiing a socially distanced activity, it also speaks to the culture of the 2-by-3-mile island. Water is a way of life, so it was only fitting that if seniors couldn’t walk across the stage, they should ride across the waves.

Dressed in caps and gowns, the seniors took turns riding up to a boat where Principal Thomas Rompella was waiting with diplomas.

“When the idea came up to have them ride jet skis for their graduation ceremony, my first thought was, ‘No way,’” Rompella said.

His next thought, however, was this provided a chance to demonstrate to students the meaning of perseverance and rising above difficult circumstances.

When the pieces fell into place and a local jet ski rental company donated everything needed, Rompella knew the splashy take on graduation was meant to be.

Educators wanted to live up to the theme they’ve taught students from the beginning, Rompella said. “That is: They all can overcome challenges.”

After three hours of practicing the art of jet ski riding the day before, the ceremony itself included each student riding up to the boat before idling as they took their diploma.

“Everyone was so happy,” Rompella said. “Not just the students, but the families as well. We wanted to go out with a big splash and we sure did.”

Graduates, start your engines

Further up the Florida coastline, students from the Flagler County School District’s two high schools marked graduation by crossing the finish line at Daytona International Speedway.

Originally, the graduation planning committee, including six students, considered a parade for the two schools, which had hundreds of students in their respective senior classes.

“We really have to understand the importance of a graduation ceremony and how it changes lives,” said Flagler Schools Superintendent James Tager. “We wanted to give something special to the kids who lost so much. They didn’t want a virtual ceremony and they wanted to have something sooner, rather than later. They wanted all their classmates to be together.”

Then, a call came in from Daytona with an offer of help.

“I wanted to say yes right away,” Tager said. Instead, he brought it back to the committee so it could discussed.

It was important to include students in the decision, said Jason Wheeler, the district’s community information officer.

“Everything about the last quarter was abnormal,” Wheeler said. “They wanted something normal. We did have all the pomp and circumstance, it just happened to be inside a premier racing facility.”

Students and their families were able to drive onto the track and do a lap, with their names announced as they crossed the finish line. At the end of the ceremony, students all got out of their cars to throw their caps at the same time.

“I’ve been to a lot of graduations, and this was the best one I’ve been to,” Tager said. “In the midst of COVID, this was a really bright spot for the community.”

On top of the world

In New Hampshire, about 170 seniors from Kennett High School rode a chairlift to the top of Cranmore Mountain Resort to receive diplomas.

Like other administrators, Principal Kevin Carpenter grappled with how to send students off in a safe but memorable way. When the idea of holding the ceremony at the resort was pitched, Carpenter was thrilled. Cranmore offered the site free of charge.

The event started at the base of the lift to accommodate those who couldn’t ride the chair. Then, administrators set up the rest of the ceremony at the top of the ski hill. After the 10-minute ride to the top, students and their guests (they could bring five) disembarked for 10 minutes.

Diplomas were placed on a stand so students could grab them without contact. A photographer took photos of students and their families with the mountain view as the backdrop. Hands were sanitized before and after riding the lift, and each lift was sprayed with a solution to kill any virus particles before the next family boarded.

Later that night, students gathered for a parade back on a road lined with teachers waving and saying bye.

It wasn’t easy planning an entirely new version of a graduation ceremony, but the efforts were well with it, Carpenter said.

“I think this year has been a model for the kids that, despite this pandemic, we can dig in and find ways to make things happen,” he said. “We need to do that as a community and as a country. Our kids deserve that.”

The ‘old’ normal

In Texas’ Jarrell Independent School District, administrators were able to use the district’s supersized Texas football stadium to conduct a somewhat normal, but socially distant, graduation ceremony. The event was still unique given the circumstances.

Texas schools were able to have events with 25% capacity on or after May 29. Thanks to the large size of the stadium, families were able to sit with plenty of space between them. The rules, which included wearing masks and limiting guests to four per student, were publicized well in advance. Middle and elementary school principals were ushers, and the administrators made a point to thank guests for following guidelines. Guests also had to sign a document stating they were symptom free.

Superintendent Bill Chapman said early communication of guidelines was key.

“At the ceremony, there was a sense of normalcy and I’m very proud of that fact,” Chapman said. “I told the students that night that this is the most memorable graduation I’ve done.”

Chapman said the ceremony is important for seniors, but it’s also for the families.

“This is for the moms, dads and the families,” he said. “It may not seem like a big deal, but it’s a rite of passage. It’s the last time this class will ever be together like that again. I wanted the kids to have that experience … of receiving a diploma in front of their family and classmates.”

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