High schools strive to maintain tradition as pandemic prevents usual pomp and circumstance

By Casey Ek

Graduation is fast approaching, and with the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to keep students out of classrooms, high school administrators are scrambling to find ways to give the Class of 2020 an appropriate sendoff.

Two weeks ago, the St. Paul Public Schools announced that its high schools will be holding virtual graduation ceremonies between June 1 and 5. The ceremonies will take place at their regularly scheduled dates and times, according to Heather Kilgore, director of family engagement and community partnerships for the school district. But instead of a large auditorium, graduating seniors, school staff and administrators will all gather around computer screens linked to Zoom. Families may also view the event live by tuning into YouTube, the educational video platform Eduvision or cable television channel 15.

Highland Park High School seniors Mya Bishop (left), Cailin Johnson, Delaney Lumpkin, Will Altman, Aedon Oberdorfer, Catie Carlson and Alivia Arredondo stand in front of the school’s Snelling Avenue courtyard where they and their fellow students have drawn a chalk mural dedicated to the Class of 2020. Photo by Casey Ek


Several elements of the district’s traditional graduation ceremony will carry over into the virtual affair, Kilgore said. For example, a School Board member and the high school’s principal will be present, and every school will put together a video featuring the graduates.

“The virtual ceremony will look very similar to the typical program that the high schools would have had in person,” Kilgore said.

Individual high schools will have a degree of freedom in making their ceremonies reflect their student bodies. As of May 6, administrators across the district were working with students and parents to shape those ceremonies. “What (the school administrators) are really trying to do is preserve the traditions,” Kilgore said, “because we all have a great sense of loss that we can’t do it the old way.”


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One tradition Highland Park High School hopes to preserve in its June 1 celebration is the performance of a live bagpiper, according to principal Winston Tucker. He and his staff are also looking for ways to incorporate students’ voices.

“I think (the virtual graduation) does lend itself to a little creativity,” Tucker said. “Schools have been encouraged to have the latitude to maintain their traditions while also being able to really tap into each school’s flavor.”

“What we’re really trying to do is preserve traditions, because we all have
a great sense of loss that we can’t do it the old way.”

One avenue graduates may have to express their creativity is the symbolic presentation of the tassel turn, Kilgore said. Those moments may be assembled as a video montage during the streaming of the graduations. District administrators have not imposed any limitations on how students present themselves in the montages, leaving that largely to the principals. However, the district will review any student-submitted content prior to the ceremonies.

Ruwayda Egal, president of the Class of 2020 at Highland Park High School, views the upcoming ceremony as an opportunity for her and her classmates to demonstrate their resilience in the midst of a pandemic that is preventing them from giving each other what she described as a proper farewell.

“With graduation, I hope everyone feels like we came together as a community,” Egal said. “I want to tell everyone that we’re so much more than a pandemic. Although our senior year has ended early, that doesn’t mean anything to the people we’ve grown to be.” Egal is also hoping that she and her classmates can still take part in the traditional postgraduation lock-in at the school at a later date, perhaps in August.

Henry Sibley High School in Mendota Heights is hoping to hold a one-car-per-graduate drive-by celebration on May 31, their original graduation date, along with an in-person commencement on August 5 or later if necessary, according to Principal Ron Monson.

As this Villager was going to press, several high schools in the area were still waiting to see whether the coronavirus restrictions would be relaxed in time for graduation ceremonies. But that was before May 8, when Governor Tim Walz issued guidelines that recommended against any large gatherings for graduation indoors or out.

Cretin-Derham Hall has decided to postpone its graduation, according to school spokes­woman Annie Broos. “We’re aware of the strong need to feel connected, to feel celebrated, to be honored,” she said. “What’s important to know is this isn’t just a sad turn of events for the seniors. It’s really emotional for everyone as we realized we wouldn’t be with one another. We want to be able to pivot so that we can do as much as we can for our students.”

CDH administrators will prioritize safety as they revise their graduation plans, Broos said. Students will be able to engage in a virtual awards ceremony in the near future as well as the cap and gown distribution on May 27, which was the school’s original graduation date.

Minnehaha Academy has also opted to postpone its graduation beyond its originally scheduled date of May 31. As of last week, the school was awaiting news of any change in the restrictions on large gatherings before notifying students and their families of a specific date, according to principal Jason Wenschlag.

Meanwhile, Visitation School was working with parents and students on multiple scenarios that may involve pushing graduation back to June 28 or July 19. “We’re doing everything we can to honor our students in whatever way we are allowed to do it,” Visitation School spokeswoman Cecilia Petschel stated in an email.

Central High School, St. Thomas Academy and St. Paul Academy were also contacted for this story, but did not return calls before press time.

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