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In lieu of a typical graduation ceremony in front of cheering throngs of parents, grandparents and siblings, Cedar Crest High School is preparing a visual commencement for its 394 seniors that will attempt to preserve all the pomp while keeping participants at a safe and healthy distance.
“We took an incredible amount of time and had each student videotaped walking across the stage and picking up their diploma,” Philip L. Domencic, superintendent for Cornwall-Lebanon School District, said Tuesday. “We had a company put it all together and we will air it on June 3. … It was quite an undertaking.”
Commencement ceremonies, as with many normal school activities, have been put on hold because of social distancing mandates to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Gov. Tom Wolf ordered schools closed for 10 days on March 16, and later extended the shutdown through the end of the current academic year.
That means regular classes, as well as school sports, proms and graduation events, had to be canceled. While schools have taken many classroom activities online to meet the state’s reduced educational requirements for the year, figuring out how to handle graduation has, for some, been problematic.
School districts in Lebanon County have begun revealing their plans to make the occasion as special and memorable for seniors and their families as they can, given the circumstances.
At Cedar Crest, the 6 p.m. ceremony on Wednesday, June 3, will also include video of the commencement speeches and remarks, Domencic said.
“We wanted an opportunity to honor our graduates as best we could,” he said. “Under the circumstances we were unable to have a typical commencement, but everybody is doing different things. Everybody is being as creative as they can.”
Students were asked to make appointments to come to the school and videotape their commencement walk across the stage.
“We had a very positive reception,” Domencic said. “The vast majority did participate.”
The district also is planning a virtual awards banquet, and seniors are getting signs for their yards to give them some recognition in the community, he said.
“They put a lot of time into high school and their education,” he said. “We want to respect that. And it’s for the parents too—to have a child graduate from high school is a very big deal.”
Commencement videos will be posted on the district website.
“They deserve it,” Domencic said. “We mourn the loss of their experiences, too.”
Annville-Cleona and ELCO
During a joint interview conducted Tuesday afternoon on Zoom, superintendents Julia Vicente from ELCO School District and Cheryl Potteiger from Annville-Cleona said they are working on similar plans for graduation.
“Cap and gown pickup is going to be on May 28 for the students,” Vicente said. “Our diploma ceremony will be held on June 4. We’re holding that in front of the middle school. Students are signing up for times so we are adhering on the number of people who are gathering at one time.”
Diplomas will be distributed from 3–8 p.m., she said.
“Students will be in their caps and gowns, and their names will be read,” she explained. “It will be a real diploma ceremony. We’re going to have a photographer there for pictures. … The high school principal has made this an actual ceremony as much as we can.”
Keeping numbers to a minimum, in adherence with state guidelines, students will each have an opportunity to walk across the stage beneath a canopy in front of the middle school, Vicente said. The ceremony will be livestreamed on Facebook.
A videographer will capture the moments, she said, and a video of the ceremony combined with recorded speeches will be made available later in June on the district website.
The ceremony is being held at the middle school, she noted, because of security upgrades currently being made to the high school.
“Throughout the process, we have been mindful of the current guidance from the Governor’s Office, the PA Department of Health, and the Pennsylvania Department of Education, while collaboratively working to plan celebrations that honored our seniors and maintained as many of the traditions as possible,” said ELCO principal Jennifer Haas.
“Graduation is a milestone for all of our families,” Vicente said. “It really is heartbreaking that we can’t have the ceremony that kids dream about, that their parents dream about … but we’re each doing the best we can, and making it as special as we can for our families. Despite COVID, each of our graduates is heading for greatness. We want to give them a good sendoff.”
At Annville-Cleona, Potteiger said, administrators are preparing a “drive-through graduation” for students in five-minute increments on Wednesday, May 27 and Thursday, May 28.
Each senior at the appointed time will drive to the ceremony at the high school with up to four family members and friends, she explained. After being handed the diploma cover—because actual diplomas will be mailed—each party will be directed to an area near the bus entrance where they can exit the vehicle, pose for photos and have a video taken of the senior turning his or her tassel and tossing the cap into the air.
A videographer will compile the fragments into a full ceremony, complete with the valedictorian, salutatorian and superintendent speeches and the formal reading of each senior’s name, Potteiger said. The video will premiere at 5:30 p.m. on June 6 at the new drive-in theater at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire grounds at Mount Hope.
“We’re doing the best we can in the situation,” Potteiger said. “We’re following the governor’s orders, and PDE’s orders with regards to social distancing. We’re trying to keep people safe … but we also don’t want to undermine the importance of graduation to our students, and how important to us they are.”
Palmyra Area School District superintendent Bernie Kepler said the district will hold its graduation on June 18.
“We are planning for a virtual commencement where speeches will be live, but streamed to families,” he said. “We will then have a diploma distribution on June 19 and 20 where graduates will walk across the stage with a few family members to pick up a diploma from a table. We will have the stage decorated as if it were a real graduation.”
The district will have a professional photographer and videographer on hand to capture the event, Kepler said.
“The videographer will then piece together the students walking across the stage into the video captured from our livestream to put together a final video of commencement,” he said. “We will be able to do this while adhering to the gathering of fewer than 10 or 25 people, depending upon status of Lebanon County at the time.”
“They are a special group of students and we wanted to make sure we are trying to make the end of their senior year memorable,” said Palmyra High School Principal Scott Richardson. “They are totally worth it.”
Lebanon School District superintendent Arthur Abrom said the high school will host two end of the year events to honor the senior class.
“Both will be conducted virtually,” Abrom said.
Activities include a senior awards and scholarship program which will be streamed on YouTube Tuesday, June 2 at 7 p.m. Commencement will follow on Wednesday, June 3 at 7 p.m.
“I am so proud of how well you have handled all of this COVID-19 adversity, as well as missing out on all of the traditional senior year activities and events,” said Lebanon High School Principal William Giovino. “There are better days ahead and the Class of 2020 deserves them more than anyone.”
Some details, according to the district website, are still to be determined.
Gary Messinger, superintendent for Northern Lebanon School District, said Monday that district officials have had “multiple conversations over the past few weeks” regarding commencement plans.
Although administrators have decided to go ahead with a graduation ceremony at the previously announced time—7:30 p.m. on June 4—the exact form of that event remains to be seen.
“We are looking at ways to socially distance our students but have them on campus—probably to have them stay in their vehicles,” Messinger said.
Administrators expect to make a final decision on the plan this Friday, he said.
“I think the seniors would love to do as much as they can possibly get away with,” he added, noting that school officials feel badly for students who are missing out on much of what makes a senior year special.
Northern Lebanon will also recognize seniors’ accomplishments during “Light the Night 2020,” an event where the scoreboard will be lit for 20 minutes at 8:20 p.m. on May 20 in honor of the Class of 2020.
“We want to recognize their accomplishments,” said Northern Lebanon High School principal Jennifer Hassler.
Seniors will also be honored by hundreds of yard signs. Annville-Cleona, Cedar Crest, ELCO, and Northern Lebanon High Schools have all purchased yard signs for their seniors, which can be seen both in front of the schools and in the yards of graduating seniors across the county. Several schools, including Lebanon and Palmyra Area High Schools, also have large banners congratulating seniors on display at their campuses.
“We wanted the seniors to feel special and to know that while their year did not end as anticipated, they should be proud of their accomplishments and know that the entire community supports them,” said Annville-Cleona Secondary School Principal Dr. Krista Antonis, who will become superintendent July 1.
Districts are using both old and new media to recognize seniors as well. Annville-Cleona School District has published seniors’ portraits in The Merchandiser and on Facebook, Palmyra has featured senior selfies on Twitter and tributes on Facebook, and ELCO created a Decision Day video featuring seniors’ plans after graduation.
“Class of 2020, these past few months have been certainly a challenge,” said Richardson. “However, this time will prepare you to thrive during unexpected situations in the future.
“We are not always in control of the events that happen in our lives. However, we are in control of how we respond to them.”
Alexis Steele contributed reporting to this article.
Read all of LebTown’s COVID-19 coverage here.
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