The spread of COVID-19 closed schools, ended sport seasons, canceled proms and all but rendered senior year celebrations kaput for the class of 2020.
But one way or another, Kansas City area districts say they will save graduation, The Kansas City Star reported.
Some schools will still hold their ceremonies in May, albeit online. Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools will social distance its pomp and circumstance at a drive-in theater. But most area schools will wait until July, hoping for the traditional caps, gowns and tassels in person.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson announced that as Monday he would lift restrictions on large gatherings, including commencement ceremonies, but that doesn’t affect municipalities with stricter rules. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s orders are set to expire May 4, and Johnson and Wyandotte counties are waiting on the state’s guidance, expected this week. Restrictions in Kansas City and Jackson County don’t expire until May 15, for now.
Regardless of the expiration dates, area school districts aren’t taking chances with typical in-person gatherings this spring. A few are planning multiple options for the summer.
“We have not yet made a decision about graduation,” said David Smith, spokesman for the Shawnee Mission school district. “We have developed two plans. Plan 1: in-person ceremonies. Plan 2: video-produced ceremonies.” Either way, he said, events would take place July 14 to 16 for the district’s five high schools.
Smith said that a final decision, coming by June 15, “about whether we are able to have gatherings large enough to schedule an in-person graduation will be made based on guidance from federal, state and local authorities.”
Lee’s Summit is also planning two contingencies. Officials are hoping for in-person ceremonies July 25 at each high school’s stadium, with a rain date the next day. “It is our hope that rescheduling our ceremonies will ensure an opportunity to provide our students the traditional experience of graduating on-stage and in the presence of their friends, family and school community,” said Katy Bergen, district spokeswoman.
Just in case, the schools are preparing a virtual recognition, in addition to virtual events set for May, including senior slideshows on social media and online award ceremonies.
But North Kansas City schools have definitely decided to hold graduations online in May, since all the high schools are within Kansas City boundaries. “In addition,” said Susan Highland, district spokeswoman, “Clay County Health Department is not recommending gatherings of more than 100 people.”
The district’s Oak Park High School will call student names as their pictures appear. Students and families can watch via computer from their homes.
“I don’t want to be dramatic, but honestly, it’s pretty devastating,” said Malisa M. Bartlow, 18, the school’s senior class president. “I don’t get to be around all my friends for graduation. Right before (stay-at-home orders) happened, we all talked about how it was supposed to be the best two months of our entire high school year.”
Raymore-Peculiar High School is in Cass County, which plans to end restrictions May 4, but the school postponed graduation to July 17.
“Our original graduation was scheduled for May 15 at the Community of Christ Auditorium, which is located in Jackson County and still has a restriction through May 15,” said Michele Stidham, spokeswoman for the district.
In Clay County, Smithville High School graduation is July 28. Liberty schools set two dates: June 14 and July 19. “We wanted to make sure we are prepared,” said April Adams, principal at Liberty High School.
In Platte County, Park Hill High School is set for July 26.
In Jackson County, Fort Osage High School graduation is July 31, for now. “We know that our plans may have to change and we are preparing for a number of scenarios depending on what, if any, restrictions we might be under for that date,” said spokeswoman Stephanie Smith.
The Olathe School District is planning outdoor ceremonies July 24-26.
“We feel it is very important to do everything in our power to recognize our seniors, especially given the devastating change to their final semester,” said Jim McMullen, assistant superintendent of high school education. “The Board of Education and our Superintendent John Allison have been incredibly supportive of the concept to honor our seniors; it’s just a little later than originally planned.”
Several districts, including Kansas City Public Schools and Center School District in south Kansas City, are still working on plans. In the meantime Center, like some other districts, expects to honor seniors by placing signs in each graduate’s front yard.
“And we are working on a social media campaign to help celebrate them,” said Christina Medina, district spokeswoman at Center.
Bartlow, who plans to attend University of Missouri in the fall, is one of four students chosen to speak at Oak Park’s virtual graduation.
“I’m going to pre-record my speech,” she said. “I won’t get to deliver it in front of the class and hear their feedback. We won’t get to toss our tassels together.” Graduation was the one high school event she was most looking forward to.
“My parents are pretty disappointed too,” she said. “They wanted to see me walk across the stage. Honestly, I can’t think of anything good about all of this.”
Even though the class of 2020 has never known a world without social media, many of them don’t want to celebrate graduation that way.
“I definitely want to be able to see my friends,” said Lylena Estabine, an 18-year-old senior at Olathe Northwest High School.
Estabine, who is planning to attend Harvard University in the fall, said the last time she saw friends was March 11, after returning from an orchestra trip to Disney World. The group went into a 14-day quarantine and never went back to school.
On March 17, Kansas closed schools for the remainder of the academic year. On April 9, Missouri did the same.
“I didn’t know that would be the last time I would see my friends in person,” said Estabine. “We always think that we have time with people. If we are able to meet in person just one more time before we leave for college, or careers, that will really be wonderful.” Her school’s in-person graduation is set for July 26.
Elsewhere, districts have gotten creative, such as the six graduation events for Kansas City, Kansas, high schools and alternative schools at the 70-year-old Boulevard Drive-in theater in KCK. Graduates and their families will sit safely in cars and watch the ceremony on the big screen. The first KCK graduation is set for June 15, and dates for the others have not been determined.
“It will have the actual feel of going to the drive-in but it will be celebrating graduates with everything from the valedictorian speech to the superintendent’s speech,” said Sharita Hutton, a district spokeswoman.
Cars with one graduate each will file into the lot, with the “Pomp and Circumstance” graduation march blaring. Graduates’ names will be called as their pictures pop up on the screen. Diplomas will be mailed home.
A few hours’ drive southwest of Kansas City, in Caney, Kansas, graduation for the 70 seniors is going to look more like a motor parade.
Students will ride in family vehicles — decorated the way students might bling out their grad caps — through the downtown. They’ll stop at a stage set up on Main Street to collect their diplomas. The parade of cars will follow a traditional town cruising route known as “Shooting the U,” said Superintendent Blake Vargas.
“This doesn’t fill the void of not having a traditional ceremony,” Vargas said. “But it absolutely is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that students might remember forever.”