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Local News

Virtual celebrations: With in-person graduations not possible, area schools look to alternative events

With in-person graduations not possible, area schools look to alternative events

St. Francis High School senior Gretta Gfesser receives a bag containing her cap and gown during the Wheaton school's Senior Drive Thru event on May 15. The event offered graduating seniors an opportunity to drop off school items and pick up their caps and gowns and end-of-year accolades. There will be no graduation ceremony due to the coronavirus pandemic.
St. Francis High School senior Gretta Gfesser receives a bag containing her cap and gown during the Wheaton school's Senior Drive Thru event on May 15. The event offered graduating seniors an opportunity to drop off school items and pick up their caps and gowns and end-of-year accolades. There will be no graduation ceremony due to the coronavirus pandemic.

District 201 Superintendent Tim Truesdale is weighing many possible scenarios these days to recognize this year's Morton seniors.

The only certainty is that graduation will look very different.

Truesdale is one of many educators considering what ceremonies are possible in following the guidelines announced by the Illinois State Board of Education and Illinois Department of Health earlier this month amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most schools, like Morton, have scheduled virtual graduations with the possibility of in-person celebrations at a later date after encouragement from the state to have virtual events.

Morton's virtual ceremony will be June 6. The district originally planned to recognize the 1,050 graduating seniors at Morton East and 850 at Morton West on May 23 at UIC's Credit Union 1 Arena, like it has the past several years.

"We're including as many aspects of a typical commencement as we can do – we'll have speakers, each person will be recognized with their photo in cap and gown that they took when we did senior pictures," Truesdale said. "We are encouraging families to do their own Zoom chats while this is going on."

Morton has dates reserved the first week of August for a drive-in theater-style graduation ceremony. Truesdale said they also are considering an in-person ceremony at UIC the Saturday after Thanksgiving or the first week of January if August is not feasible.

"Based on the size of the class we may have to do multiple ceremonies if it is feasible and permissible. We would like to have as close to a ceremony as we can," Truesdale said. "A commencement [in August] where people could view from their cars. We might have to do as many as three ceremonies depending on the venue. We don't want to overpromise and underdeliver, but at the same time we're going to make every effort we can to honor these seniors."

Westmont, Wheaton Warrenville South and Wheaton North high schools are all planning virtual ceremonies on their original graduation date.

Westmont's ceremony will be May 26, with pre-taped speeches from its valedictorian and salutatorian and a slide show with pictures of the class in their caps and gowns. Westmont High School principal Jack Baldermann said the school previously pushed back its in-person ceremony to the end of June and held out hope that restrictions would be lifted by then, but information from the state the last few weeks reiterated how difficult that would be.

"We will do the virtual to get some closure and celebration," Baldermann said. "Trust me, it's painful not to do the [in-person ceremony] right now. I just love these kids and they deserve this. They're missing out on a lot of different events. I'm hoping we can still do something."

If the governor's reopening plan moves forward, Baldermann said Westmont probably will do some sort of recognition ceremony in July. Should that not be possible, a ceremony could take place during homecoming weekend in the fall.

"Everything is up in the air," Baldermann said. "We hope that we're in position to do something. It's important to our seniors that we have something in-person, but if we're still in Phase 3 in August and people are getting on with their lives, we didn't want to miss out on a chance to celebrate our seniors."

Community Unit School District 200 will have its virtual graduation May 23, with Wheaton North High School airing at 10 a.m. and Wheaton Warrenville South High School at noon. The in-person ceremony had been scheduled for the College of DuPage, but superintendent Jeff Schuler said it became clear in discussions with the local health department that a path wasn't there for a typical celebration.

The virtual graduations will include speeches from students and adults, selected musical numbers and recognition of each graduate by name with their picture. The district last week did a drive-thru and pickup in which each student could pick up their cap and gown and a yard sign to take their picture.

"Our hope is to take each student's picture on the stage when we arrive at a place that is safe to bring in groups. We're trying to create that opportunity, perhaps with limited size gatherings," Schuler said. "We're not necessarily at the end of that planning, but we felt it was important to have closure."

Lyons Township High School will host its virtual ceremony at 2 p.m. May 31 on LTTV, with student and staff speeches and reading of names. A ringing of the bell at the North Campus to honor the graduates follows at 3 p.m. The school will have a diploma distribution event May 28 and 29 in which each graduate will have a time slot to receive their diploma and the option to take a professional photo in their cap and gown.

"We know alternative events can never replace the traditional celebrations we enjoy at LT, but we will do our best to honor the Class of 2020," Lyons principal Brian Waterman said.

Several other area schools have yet to finalize their graduation ceremony plans.

Both Downers Grove North and Downers Grove South high schools have rescheduled their graduations from May 22 to July 1, but have not yet finalized plans for how it will play out. Similarly, York Community High School District 205 has not yet made an announcement.

St. Francis High School is tentatively hoping to have graduation, as well as its traditional end of the year celebration dinner, for seniors at the end of July on campus.

St. Francis on May 15 did a senior drive-thru event in which seniors dropped off and collected items, including their cap, gown and yearbook, while staff and faculty greeted and cheered them.

"This event was unique for us," said Krystal LaMantia, assistant director of communications at St. Francis. "We have been looking for ways to celebrate and recognize the seniors. This was not the end of the year that they anticipated but we're trying to do as much as we can."

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