Edmonton

Class of COVID-19: Inventing high school graduation celebrations they will never forget

Some Alberta schools are celebrating grad with processions and online ceremonies, while others are postponing or canceling altogether.

Alberta schools celebrate with processions, online ceremonies so students don't miss out

School graduations across Alberta are taking on a new, unique feel because of COVID-19 pandemic guidelines. 2:36

Valedictorian Keira Slusarczyk and her classmates at Thorsby Junior/Senior High School were disappointed when COVID-19 postponed their graduation dinner and ceremony.

But a surprise awaited students picking up their grad photos last Friday, the day of the cancelled event.

Enlarged photos of each graduate — spaced two metres apart to respect the rules of physical distancing — lined the sidewalk outside the school. 

Smiling teachers, support and maintenance staff and the principal, dressed as the school's sabre-tooth tiger mascot, waved pompoms and signs that said "We miss you" and "We are proud of you."

Students and parents drove past in a procession, taking it all in.

"I almost teared up and it just really put a smile on my face because it really showed that they did care and that we could still celebrate even if it wasn't what we originally thought it would be," said Slusarczyk, 17, who has known the majority of her classmates since preschool.

That evening, cheered on by residents, students in their cars, pickup trucks and even tractors, paraded up and down the streets of Thorsby, a town of about 1,000 people, 70 kilometres southwest of Edmonton. 

Graduates paraded through Thorsby's streets on Friday, cheered on by town residents. (Thorsby Junior Senior High School)

The school plans to host an in-person event when health orders are lifted and Albertans can gather in large groups again.

"We miss the heck out of them," principal Jon Ganton said in an interview Wednesday. "Being able to see those kids and just the smiles on their faces as they were driving by. It meant the world to us and hopefully it meant a lot to them as well."

It meant the world to us and hopefully it meant a lot to them as well.- principal Jon Ganton

It's one of the ways roughly 32,000 Alberta graduates are marking the major milestone after the disruption of COVID-19. Some boards have made difficult decisions.

Edmonton Catholic Schools informed parents and guardians last month that graduation ceremonies are postponed until September or October, if public health measures are lifted.

Students can look forward to commencement ceremonies, a religious celebration, a formal presentation with speeches and a celebration with refreshments, but no banquet.

"There will not be any banquets due to insufficient time to properly prepare, to secure a suitable venue and — given the uncertainty surrounding social gatherings — it would be unwise to plan large-scale events beyond the commencement," superintendents Joe Naccarato and Robert Martin wrote in a letter on April 8.

"We also are cognizant of the fact that many families are being financially devastated by the economic impact of the pandemic and want to minimize financial barriers to participation as much as possible."

Cancelled grad prompts petition

After considering the current situation and future outlook, potential financial and health risks, Elk Island Public Schools officials cancelled ceremonies and banquets altogether.

The move prompted one student to start a petition signed by nearly 5,500 people as of Wednesday afternoon, asking the district to postpone rather than cancel grad.

In a statement to CBC, superintendent Mark Liguori said schools will do what they can in late June to recognize student accomplishments while following rules around physical distancing.

"It seems unfair those graduating this year won't have the opportunity to come together with their school community to honour the many years of hard work they've invested in their education," Liguori wrote.

"Graduation is a rite of passage for our students. And as a division, we understand the families' sadness and disappointment at having to forego the events tied to this significant accomplishment."

Edmonton Public Schools will hold online grad celebrations before the end of the school year. 

"In addition to an online celebration, all high schools are planning to host an in-person event acknowledging our 2020 graduates, once health guidelines allow," wrote spokesperson Anna Batchelor. "Our schools are working on details for both celebrations, and will share more information with families as plans are determined." 

Ross Sheppard's Rubie Shatford, co-president of the Edmonton high school's grad committee, says they're making the best of current circumstances. (Google)

Members of the grad committee at Ross Sheppard high school are doing all they can to make the revamped celebration a special one for their 610 graduates.

A downloadable video will include speeches from officials and the valedictorian, as well as a segment showing what students have been up to during isolation.

In consultation with Edmonton police, the committee is also in the final stages of planning a vehicle procession ending at the school, where graduates will be presented with their caps and folios by their well-loved principal Rick Paulitsch, who is retiring this year.

"I think that's one of the most beautiful things about a graduation ceremony is to see that human interaction, because there is truly a love that occurs between students and staff," said ceramics and physics teacher Ben Oswald, who oversees the committee.

An in-person banquet and dance is planned for the fall, or whenever large groups can gather again.

Student Rubie Shatford, who is co-president of the committee, said most graduates were disappointed at first but the feedback on the new plan has been positive.

 "Everyone's very understanding, which is great. And we're going to make the best of it."

Staff from the Thorsby high school honoured their grads with a surprise procession on Friday. (Thorsby Junior Senior High School)

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