No slow dances: High schools find new ways to mark graduation during pandemic

For Alberta’s class of 2021, there will be no awkward slow dances with their grad dates, no big banquets to mark the milestone of graduation. For a second year, these rites of passage have been altered or canceled outright by the pandemic.

'It's very devastating because we've all looked forward to this moment for, like, years'

Alberta students will be missing out on traditional graduation ceremonies amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (CBC)

Emma Leclerc will ask her parents to turn the tassel on her graduation cap.

It's her way to ensure they are part of the rite of passage.

Leclerc's mother and father were unable to attend her official convocation ceremony but watched the 17-year-old walk across the stage from behind a computer screen. 

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Leclerc got her diploma Tuesday in the gym at Archbishop Jordan Catholic High School in Sherwood Park, Alta., in a closed ceremony attended only by classmates and staff. 

A photographer was on hand and school officials encouraged students to use Photoshop to paste in the faces of their loved ones.

"It's very devastating because we've all looked forward to this moment for, like, years,"  Leclerc said in an interview before Tuesday's ceremony.

Emma Leclerc poses with her gap and gown. The 2021 high-school graduate says she was devastated to learn her grad dance and traditional ceremony had been cancelled. (Emma Leclerc/Facebook)

For Alberta's class of 2021, there will be no awkward slow dances with grad dates, no big banquets to mark the milestone. For a second year, these rites of passage have been altered or cancelled outright by the pandemic.

"There's so many of us that paid and bought grad dresses," Leclerc said. "It kind of feels like we've got them for nothing.

"I know we only usually wear them once, but it's still the fact of going and experiencing that ceremony. It's pretty upsetting."

Haven Hiscock, a sales associate at Prom Affair in west Edmonton, said business has been quiet. Sales have dropped by about 50 per cent this season.

Fewer grads are buying dresses and those who do are spending less. Hiscock said most customers are buying gowns for family photo shoots.

Grads seem determined to keep tradition despite the pandemic, she said.

"For years, you would go out with your mother or with your friends, and you would go and buy yourself the grad dress you wanted, and you would have that prom or banquet and you would be able to go in a limo with your friends. 

"But now it's just pictures, something that you can remember, especially in these difficult times." 

Tradition with a twist

As happened in 2020, some schools are getting creative.  Some Edmonton Catholic and public school students will graduate at drive-thru and drive-in events.

Grads from Archbishop O'Leary High School will gather in caps and gowns at Castrol Raceway, confined to their designated parking spaces and safely distanced.

Students from Edmonton's Vimy Ridge Academy are trading the stage for the baseball diamond, receiving their diplomas in a distanced ceremony at ReMax Field.

Graduation follows a difficult year for the class of 2021. Each wave of COVID-19 brought new challenges as students were repeatedly sent home to learn online.

"It was lonely," said Tawfeeq Mannan, 17, class valedictorian at Old Scona Academic in Edmonton.

"That kind of stinks but, in a way, it's helped to kind of ease the loneliness in recognizing that everyone is facing things to the same extent." 

Tawfeeq Mannan is a Grade 12 student at Old Scona Academic in Edmonton and his class valedictorian. He says a challenging school year has brought his classmates closer together. (Jamie McCannell/CBC)

Mannan's family will watch his valedictory address online.

"I really hoped that grad could have been in person this year because I feel like it seals the closure of it all, like 'Hey, we actually did this,'" he said. "But what can we do? COVID is a reality."

Jaden Khaliq Majumdar, a Grade 12 student at Edmonton's Strathcona High School, bought a tux before learning that his school dance was cancelled and that the grad ceremony would be streamed online.

"We're doing the best with what we have," he said. "There still have been some great moments." 

Jaden Khaliq Majumdar, 17, said the pandemic made for a challenging school year for the Class of 2021. He said celebrating graduation will be bittersweet. (Manuel Carrillos/CBC)


Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.