COVID-19 forces changes to graduation celebrations

Denise Titian, June 4, 2020

Abigail Manson of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation is graduating from high school this summer, but COVID-19 is preventing a traditional ceremony. Her late grandmother made the cedar cap. (Submitted photo)

Vancouver Island, BC — 

On June 1 British Columbia’s public schools opened on a limited basis with a goal of full opening in September if the COVID-19 pandemic is less of a risk, but this doesn’t mean that 2020 graduation ceremonies will happen.

Beginning June 1, measures will be put in place to protect against the spread of the novel coronavirus in public schools. This includes social distancing and sanitation, and parents may opt out of sending their children back to school for the remainder of the term.

But part of protecting the students is limiting crowd sizes as the pandemic continues. Public Schools in the province are forced to forgo traditional graduation ceremonies as public health orders related to the coronavirus pandemic remain in place.

Grade 12 students look forward with excitement to graduation. As the school year winds down graduates and their parents normally begin shopping and planning elaborate graduation ceremonies. But the coronavirus pandemic has left 2020 graduates and their families with a feeling of sadness and frustration.

According to the BC Restart Plan, we are in Phase 3 of gradual opening of businesses and services. This phase is slated to run June to September with places like schools partially open as long as COVID-19 transmission rates are low or in decline.

Kyuquot Elementary Secondary School staff have resumed in-class instruction on a limited basis, which began in late May, with a plan for social distance lessons. School staff are using have the gym to spread desks apart in keeping with social distancing requirements. Parents have the option of sending their children to school on a limited basis. Time schedules are arranged so that a smaller number of students are receiving in-class instruction at any given time.

“We have one of our largest graduation classes in recent years, a group who is feeling hugely discouraged that they do not get to finish their final year with regular connections to school and their peers,” said Monique Comeau, KESS vice principal.

“Praises to parents of our community who do have the drive to make sure our kids, who are still learning at home, are engaging and staying caught up with their school work,” added Nuu-chah-nulth Education Worker Daisy Hanson.

On March 17 Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry issued a public health order prohibiting gatherings of more than 50. This order remains in place and prevents public schools from having traditional graduation ceremonies.

This leaves the province’s 2020 graduating class searching for alternatives to traditional commencement ceremonies – disappointing many that have worked long and hard to earn their diplomas.

It is a rite of passage that teenagers dream of; tuxedos and elaborate prom dresses, limo rentals, photo shoots, proud parents beaming as their graduate walks up onto the stage to receive their diploma.

But this year it must be done differently.

Jermaine Paul is graduating from Eighth Avenue Learning Centre this year.

“I think he’s bummed out a bit; it’s going to be a virtual grad,” said his mother Inez Paul.

Jermaine and his classmates were asked to provide baby photos and grad photos to the school. They also recorded video comments.

“The school is producing a video presentation of photos we donated and it’s going to be shown on YouTube,” said Jermaine.
He doesn’t know how or when he will receive his diploma, saying he was told that the school would be keeping families updated as they go.

“It kind of sucks, I would rather be going up on stage to get my diploma,” Paul said.

According to ADSS Vice Principal Carl Poole, ADSS is filming a virtual ceremony. 

“Our filming and editing is being done by high school student Richard Spencer, with the support of our Drama, Film, and Television teacher Stephanie Hopkins,” he stated.

Graduates and their families are assigned a time to film in the school auditorium. Dressed in gowns and caps, the graduates will receive their diplomas in the decorated space. The families will be allowed to pose for photographs on the stage before moving to the foyer, which has a decorated space for grad photos.

“At this point grads will learn if they have won any scholarships,” said Poole.

The spaces are sanitized between the filming of each graduate. 

“The final product will be release on July 3 at 7pm and can be seen on Shaw TV or through weblinks on the ADSS Website and ADSS Facebook pages,” added Poole.

In Ahousaht, Education Director Rebecca Atleo said they are still working on how Maaqtusiis Grad 2020 will look. As a band-run school, Maaqtusiis High School is not part of the public-school system. The community is still following protocols to keep the community safe during the pandemic.

According to Maaqtusiis School Administrator Pam Frank-Perry, school staff and parents continue to meet and firm grad plans have not yet been made.

“We are having a meeting today and will hear parent’s ideas on how we can make this work, safely,” said Frank-Perry on June 2.

Abigail Manson of Tla-o-qui-aht is graduating from Ucluelet Secondary School. Her mother, Margaret, said the school has arranged to do individual presentations with the graduates, which will be recorded.

“A few kids asked to do one (grad ceremony) on the field, with each graduate’s family members in sections but school has to follow the government guidelines of no crowds gathering in groups of more than 50,” Margaret shared. “So, each graduate is being given 20 minutes for a private ceremony in the band room.”

According to information provided to the parents from the school, Ucluelet Secondary School Graduates will record their individual ceremonies over two days in June. The clips will be spliced together to make a full grad class video. Weather permitting, there will be a grad parade in Ucluelet on June 20.

On May 25, the provincial government and Ministry of Education announced that British Columbia’s graduates would be celebrated in a virtual graduation and end-of-school celebration by local artists and performers.

“I know this is not how graduates expected to celebrate their achievements, but that doesn’t diminish the occasion,” said Premier John Horgan.

The event aired on May 26 on a Facebook page and YouTube channel.

The pandemic has also affected the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council’s annual scholarship ceremonies.

NTC’s Director of Education Ian Caplette acknowledges that it is important to honor and respect students, but there will be no gatherings.

He is pleased to announce that scholarships will remain available for students.

“Scholarships for K – 12 are still a go, as per normal,” he added.

The NTC Education Department is working with Ha-Shilth-Sa to pull together a distinctly Nuu-chah-nulth celebration of education production.

Not wanting to give away too much detail, Caplette said he hopes that each Nuu-chah-nulth graduate and scholarship winner can be presented with a copy of this production.