Delaware high schools still grappling with commencement dilemmas

As a member of a family that has had several members graduate from the school through the years, Caesar Rodney High principal Sherry Kijowski knows there is significance in walking across the stage and accepting a diploma in Rider Stadium.

“I have received lots of correspondence from current seniors and parents about wanting to make sure, if at all possible, their child gets the opportunity to walk at Rider Stadium,” she said.

The high school is trying to make that a reality: it announced alternate dates for graduation — July 25 and Aug. 1, if their intended date of June 6 doesn’t pan out.

“At this point, I have been in the stadium with some of our custodians, and one of my assistant principals, and we have been kind of measuring chairs and what it would look like to socially distance on a field, honestly, using the U.S. Air Force Academy [and] their field setup as sort of a mock and model,” she noted.

In a letter she sent to the community, Dr. Kijowski laid out several different paths: if large ceremonies are still prohibited, students will be the only ones in the stadium, graduating at a distance like the Air Force. If the size of the class prohibits the seniors being together at once, they’ll graduate alphabetically at a designated time. Ceremonies will be livestreamed, like years past, the letter notes.

The district is one of many trying to determine how to celebrate its senior class while the spring term has radically changed. Some are holding to tradition, while others are looking to craft anew. But leadership agreed that it’s important to adapt and celebrate their seniors in any capacity.

“People, for years, have worked toward hitting these milestones in their lives and they graduated — no pun intended — they graduated expectations,” said Ray Gravuer, Appoquinimink School District supervisor of special programs. “As much as people are willing to put gowns and mortarboards on kindergartners’ heads when they come to first grade, really your first graduation is high school. So you want some level of normalcy and consistency.”

Each year, the district establishes a graduation committee — made up of staff, parents and students — but this ceremony will obviously be a bit different.

Appoquinimink’s “A Plan” was returning to business as usual, with graduation held in the Bob Carpenter Center in Newark; if the Bob were to remain closed, then graduations would carry on at the schools. But when schools were to continue remote learning for the rest of the year, that plan got dashed, too, and virtual became the priority.

What a virtual ceremony will look like differs by the district.

For Appoquinimink’s two high schools, Mr. Gravuer said the committee is working through details of what that ceremony will entail, but he envisions a roll call for diplomas, traditional speakers and a tassel ceremony.

Caesar Rodney is planning to release a video tribute to seniors on the original graduation date, June 6, as a nod to their accomplishments, Dr. Kijowski said. The yearbook staff is crafting a virtual book for the class of 2020, which will be used in the tribute.

At Cape Henlopen High School, a production company is helping craft a virtual commencement ceremony with guest speakers and the traditional hallmarks of a graduation for the original date of June 9, said principal Nikki Miller.

“Our district has decided to not say [graduation] is going to be in August or in December. We’re going to wait and hold something once all the restrictions have been lifted. We have a plan for that, but we didn’t want to put a date, because we didn’t want to give false hope because none of us really know,” Ms. Miller said. “We don’t know when it’s going to be. What we didn’t want was for our graduation day to come and our kids have nothing.”

On the night of graduation, students and families will be issued a link to tune in, and students will be able to download the commencement to keep it, she said.

Milford High School is hopeful they can still provide a traditional graduation at some point, said principal Jesse Parsley.

“We have formed a committee with some parents and students to look at alternative dates, senior events and a virtual ceremony,” he said in an email. “All of our traditional senior events will follow the state’s prescribed social distancing guidelines.”

He noted the Air Force’s graduation model was an interesting approach and “is not totally out of possibilities.”

“Delaware is in a different situation than the Air Force Academy. Any traditional graduation ceremony will follow the guidelines from the Governor’s Office and the Department of Public Health,” he added. “Community health and safety is always on our minds.”

The school has met with several vendors to look at different options for a virtual graduation, and is still working on details. Mr. Parsley said Milford High School wants families and students to have the opportunity to pick up diplomas, take photos in graduation regalia and be recognized.

“The meetings scheduled with the committee will help us ensure that both parents and students are heard,” he added.

Meanwhile, beyond a virtual ceremony, Appoquinimink is determining what a celebration with seniors would look like. Mr. Gravuer said the committee is considering options for a “unification gathering” where the class, teachers and staff can come together once restrictions are lifted.

“We are doing some surveys with what students would want, and what would they want for a followup event?” he said, noting that if seniors have already had a virtual ceremony and have their diplomas, they may not want to have a traditional graduation.

“But there’s got to be something that can bring the group together,” he continued. “And the question there is, given that social distancing or larger gatherings can happen, what format is that in? And what is the best time?”

The revised graduation dates in the Indian River School District are Indian River High School (June 17), Sussex Central High School (June 18) and Howard T. Ennis School (June 19).

Sussex Tech hasn’t made any formal decisions regarding graduation celebrations, and staff is working on other options, said Dan Shortridge, a spokesman for the district.

Polytech School District released a letter noting that committees will plan a virtual ceremony for the short term, followed by a larger in-person celebration to honor 2020 graduates later.

The end of senior year isn’t just graduation, though. It’s other memories, unique to their schools, that the class of 2020 has watched their predecessors check off.

At CRHS, one of those signs of senior year is Donut Day. The school holds it on decision day for colleges, where students have officially enrolled in their program of choice.

“They get to decorate a donut with their new school colors. I mean, I go to Byler’s, I buy every color sprinkle and sugar known to man,” Dr. Kijowski said. “They’ve lost that. So we need to make sure that if they’ve lost something, we find something. It’s kind of like this game of Lost and Found. Like, ‘OK, I lost one event, but let’s find something else to give them a memory.’ I think I want them to have a sense of hope and significance about their senior year.”

Ms. Miller at Cape said that at the end of May, seniors will pick up their caps and gowns (in a socially distant manner). On June 8, the school will hold the “Journey of the Class of 2020” in Hudson Fields.

A drive-thru experience, with their senior portraits and names on signs, along with other memorabilia, will be on display for the seniors and community to visit.

After graduation, the signs will be divided amongst the staff to be delivered to the students, along with their diploma.

“We’re hoping that our students will come out in a cap and gown so that we can get a picture of them holding their diploma, maybe with their families, in front of their sign,” she said. “We know how difficult this is; it’s sad for all of us that are missing all the fun that comes with spring, but we’re trying to do our best to make sure that our seniors feel appreciated.”

Mr. Parsley agreed that it is important the seniors be acknowledged.

“These senior events represent the end of their high school career and the beginning of the next chapters in their lives,” he said. “Students look forward to this day beginning with freshman orientation to our senior meetings in May. While these events may not be done traditionally this year, the completion of high school will still be an exciting time for these students.”

Graduation and senior events remain a discussion at school board meetings in Milford School District Tuesday, Capital School District Wednesday and Appoquinimink School District later this month.

Staff writer Glenn Rolfe contributed to this story.

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