Streaming ceremonies featuring home-made student videos. Students and families driving up to a school to get their diplomas from the principal, or parked in a lot in a scene that resembles a drive-in movie.
Or holding smaller ceremonies or events months after seniors finish school — even as late as December.
These are some of the ways high schools in Chicago and the suburbs are considering honoring graduating seniors this year as traditional large ceremonies featuring hundreds or thousands of graduates and family members appear less and less likely this spring.
While many seniors say they aren’t huge fans of the ideas that are a far cry from what they had anticipated for years, they might not have a choice if Gov. J.B. Pritzker extends a stay-at-home order into next month or even into the summer, or restricts large gatherings, as he has indicated.
At Whitney Young Magnet High School, Principal Joyce Kenner has laid out a number of scenarios for graduation for the school’s nearly 500 seniors, including one where students queued up in cars drive up to the school on the Near West Side to accept her congratulations, and their diplomas, and drive off.
She’s also suggested a live-streamed ceremony featuring valedictorians and class officers giving speeches. It could then be punctuated by videos of students, standing in homes decorated in school colors, listing their achievements and announcing where they’re bound for college — or other messages to classmates — when their names are called.
“It’s important for students to be able to have these traditional experiences,” Kenner said in an interview. “I want them to have a high school experience like I had.”
In a video message sent to students this week, Kenner, wearing graduation cap, said they were going “to make the best of a terrible situation” and assured students, “We are still going to have a great time.
“It might be altered and not look like a traditional graduation, but we’re going to have some fun — we’re going to have a graduation — we just need to figure out how it’s going to look.”
Holding an outdoor graduation in August or indoor ceremony in December are among the plans under consideration at west suburban Oak Park and River Forest High School, which this week sent a survey to senior students and their parents. The school also asked about holding a virtual ceremony at the end of May, with the school pre-recording some traditional elements of the commencement and editing it into a film that would stream online.
“We’ve had roughly 500 students and 500 parents respond so far, which is great — we really want to know what would be most meaningful to our seniors, and they are definitely telling us!” school spokeswoman Karin Sullivan said in an email.
For senior Sophia Groenendaal, 18, stretching the whole thing out to December just feels too long.
“A lot of us will have already moved on at that point,” said Groenendaal, who is bound for Sarah Lawrence College in New York in the fall. “I think it might be kind of awkward.”
Groenendaal said just holding it at the end of May, as planned, would be OK with her, even if its virtual.
“At least we would all still be able to graduate on time,” she said.
Large school challenges
In nearby Berwyn, Morton West Principal Josh McMahon is also thinking of alternatives that strive to accommodate social distancing and an in-person experience that features students and families in parked cars in a lot.
Students and families could watch while video was projected on a screen set up along with a stage upfront. Individual students could walk up to the stage to get their diplomas when called.
But he doesn’t know if the state would allow such an event at a school with a senior class of about 850 students.
“There are so many positives to being a member of a large school, but now it’s challenging because of the restrictions around large groups,” McMahon said.
Lyons Township High School in La Grange is confronting the same issues as they work toward plans that can accommodate a senior class of about 1,000 students, Principal Brian Waterman said Wednesday.
“Some students want to delay and others don’t,” he said.
Graduation would typically be held May 31, and Waterman said that in discussions with students, he’s seen very little appetite for waiting to hold an event much past the summer.
“We’re not getting any feedback that says it would be feasible or well-participated,” Waterman said.
No final plans have been made, he said.
Students hold out hope
Being left in the dark as schools consider options while awaiting final guidance from the state has also been frustrating for seniors, particularly CPS students that endured a 12-day walk-out by teachers last fall.
Leah Aberman, 17, a senior at Lane Tech College Prep in Lake View, said the wait has been nerve-wracking.
“It really reminds me of the teachers strike,” she said. “It was hard to plan then, too, because we were just waiting for new [information] day-by-day.”
Twin sisters Megan and Emma Gallian, also seniors at Lane Tech, are also frustrated by the lack of information and the possibility the pinnacle event of their high school careers will get short shrift.
“It feels like everything this year has just been pushed aside,” Emma Gallian said.
Both are pushing for it to be postponed long enough so it can be held in person, saying they have been looking forward to celebrating with family and friends for years.
“At Lane, everything is really rigorous,” Megan added. “When I was pulling all nighters ... I had always looked forward to just having that moment at the end.”
School officials did not respond to requests for comment.
And many agree: After months of remote learning online, a virtual event will not be the same.
“I’ve had plenty of Zoom calls and FaceTime,” said Brandon Jenkins, who also attends Lane Tech. Even in-person ceremonies with fewer students or relatives, said his brother, Bryce, who attends St. Ignatius College Prep, would be preferable: “We might not be able to see everyone, but at least we’d all be together. I think we all want that experience.”