Indiana high school graduations bring pomp to unprecedented circumstances

Coronavirus Graduation in Long Beach, California.
Graduation balloons (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

Next week, high school senior Claire Wallace will don a cap and gown, complete with honors cords around her neck. But instead of walking across the Shortridge High School stage — the same stage her mother walked across years earlier — she’ll walk outside, to stand in her family’s driveway. 

Graduation will look different this year for Indiana’s senior class. Shortridge, an Indianapolis Public Schools campus, is among many schools statewide that opted for a virtual graduation ceremony in the midst of the coronavirus, with pre-recorded speeches and a slideshow of seniors’ pictures live-streamed on Facebook. 

Since they won’t get to watch her walk across a stage, Wallace’s extended family is planning to drive past the house. They want to see her in the gown and make sure she still hears them cheering her on. 

Districts nationwide were left to create alternative ceremonies for graduating seniors as it remains unclear when it will be safe for large crowds of people to gather. In other states, the disruption has prompted schools to recruit Oprah as the commencement speaker or use ski gondolas to pick up their diplomas. 

With Indiana’s governor limiting social gatherings to 100 people, filling a gymnasium or stadium isn’t an option. But school leaders weren’t going to let the class of 2020 leave without a little pomp and circumstance. So they got creative, coming up with events that look more like a drive-in movie or a Fourth of July parade.

“This whole pandemic has taken so much away from this class of 2020,” said Decatur Township Superintendent Matt Prusiecki. “Parents of students, they want to see their students graduate. … This event means a lot to our community.”

The district started rethinking the ceremony back in April, Prusiecki said. Initially they tried coming up with ways to section off the bleachers so families could attend while remaining the recommended 6 feet apart. But none of those plans were approved by the local health department, he said.

They ended up coming up with an approach dubbed a “drive-thru graduation,” which allows students and families to stay in their car, only getting out to cross the stage and pick up their diploma. Instead of in the gym, the stage will be set up in the football stadium.

Logistically, it will be a heavy lift, with police directing traffic and school officials alphabetizing cars. Pruseki said they are aiming to have the June 12 ceremony finished in four hours, by 10 p.m. Realistically, he’ll be happy if it’s done by midnight.

“It’s the least we can do for our kids and our families,” he said. “It’s a very minor sacrifice to put this kind of ceremony in place. They deserve it.”

Beech Grove High School is taking a similar approach for its June 6 commencement. Each of the school’s more than 200 seniors will arrive in a car with up to five guests. Families won’t get out of their vehicles until it’s their child’s turn to take the stage and receive their diploma. For those family members who didn’t squeeze a spot in the car, the ceremony will also be live-streamed. 

The alternate ceremony wasn’t a quick or easy decision, said Principal Lizz Walters. School leaders are still watching for updated safety guidance from the state. 

“Our hope was to adhere to guidelines at the time but allow our graduates to still experience some type of ceremony,” Walters said in an email. “Our community has history, and this is a benchmark in many of our students’ and families’ lives. ... With our size, we were able to facilitate this over a period of time while adhering to healthy guidelines.”

At Speedway High School, a procession of cars will lead high school seniors into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and around the track before they walk one-by-one across the bricks and receive their diploma. 

Indianapolis Public Schools is among the larger districts in the state that opted to move their ceremonies entirely online, pre-recording speeches and collecting photos of seniors in advance. The city’s central district, among the largest in the state, has more than 1,200 seniors in total.

“We didn’t make this decision lightly,” IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said in an emailed statement earlier this month. “We assembled an advisory group of high school seniors to get their ideas. In the end, students wanted to mark their graduation, as scheduled, in June and felt a virtual celebration was a fitting option in a time of social distancing.”

Shortridge High School senior Claire Wallace poses with her boyfriend, Ziv Zellars. They threw their own personal prom after the dance was canceled because of the coronavirus. (Photo provided by Claire Wallace)

Last week, seniors at Shortridge, including Wallace, lined up in their cars in a school parking lot to pick up their caps and gowns. It wasn’t the same as a drive-thru ceremony, but it was nice to see everyone, Wallace said. Teachers brought signs to say congratulations. 

Missing that sentimental moment of crossing a stage is disappointing, Wallace said, especially for her mother. But accepting the change is getting easier with time. 

“I don’t think that it’s going to be as emotional,” she said. “It’s not going to be the same, but it still will be memorable and special.”

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