Districts move to hold 2020 graduation ceremonies virtually

Posing for a group photo in caps and gowns, like this group of 2019 Temecula Valley High School seniors, will become a dream not realized for many seniors graduating from area schools in 2020. Valley News/Shane Gibson photo

As the coronavirus pandemic drags on, local school districts are increasingly turning to virtual graduations to honor seniors who won’t be able to receive their diplomas in-person due to orders banning public gatherings.

When public health orders forced schools to close in March, many districts did not commit one way or the other on when and how graduations would take place.

Some districts are still weighing the decision, but as of the beginning of May, many have come to the conclusion that in-person graduations cannot go on.

One of those districts is Hemet Unified School District, whose superintendent came to the decision after meeting virtually with high school principals and some senior students and concluding that a delayed in-person ceremony would pose logistical challenges for students who may no longer be in the area.

“For example, we have students that are enlisting in the armed forces and if we postpone graduation, they will not be able to attend,” district representative Alexandrea Sponheim said.

A delayed graduation could also be in jeopardy of being canceled yet again, if there’s a second wave of coronavirus infections this winter, as many health experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, have warned.

“We were considering postponing to the winter months, however medical professionals are preparing for a resurgence of the virus in the winter and we would hate to postpone graduation only to cancel it again,” Sponheim said. “This decision was a heartbreaking realization. Our superintendent is a parent to a senior and is experiencing the effect of this decision just as our seniors and families are.”

Sponheim said as difficult the decision to cancel in-person ceremonies was, “We knew we needed to do something to celebrate our seniors even if this wasn’t our Plan A or Plan B.”

Graduations for Hemet Unified are scheduled for the end of May.

Temecula Valley Unified officials announced Monday, May 4, that all graduations will be held in a virtual form that will “closely mirror and memorialize the elements of the in-person graduations of the past as best possible.”

The virtual ceremonies, according to an email sent to students and parents, will include introduction music, speeches and performances, graduate presentation, tassel-turning and cap tossing. Each graduation will also be formatted into videos to be uploaded to school websites and YouTube, as well as broadcast on the city of Temecula’s public access television channel. The videos are expected to be available in the second half of June, after the ceremonies take place June 4.

Additionally, each high school will have a dedicated webpage with information for graduating seniors, including information on times to pick up caps and gowns and yearbook distribution. 

“All item pick-ups and coordination for virtual graduation will take place safely using county mandated practices,” TVUSD’s announcement said. “More specific information will be forthcoming as delivery dates and times become concrete, and communication can be sent out to senior students to coordinate these events.”

Perris Union High School District, which serves students in Perris as well as Menifee, has announced plans to hold graduations virtually, as have Lake Elsinore Unified and San Jacinto Unified school districts.

“While we had hoped to postpone our traditional graduation ceremonies, based on current county and state restrictions, it is unlikely that the convening of large groups will be permissible, even into late summer,” according to the Perris Union High School District in an announcement on its website May 1. “We believe the decision to hold virtual graduation ceremonies is in the best interest of our students, their families and our many employees who participate in commencement ceremonies each year.”

Perris Union went on to say that specific dates for graduations have not been finalized, but students and their families will be notified when they are, and that seniors will receive individual notices from their schools with information on how diplomas will be distributed, as well as when they can pick up their caps and gowns.

“We know this is a disappointment to our seniors and their families. Graduation ceremonies symbolize an important rite of passage and celebration of the accomplishment of completing a high school education,” according to the district’s announcement. “We know that nothing can replace the excitement and experience of a traditional graduation ceremony, however, the district plans to do everything possible to make the virtual graduation ceremonies as special as possible for the class of 2020 and their families.”

Lake Elsinore Unified has perhaps the clearest idea of how its virtual graduation will be conducted out of local districts, having announced it plans to utilize Facebook for the ceremonies.

“The graduation ceremony for the class of 2020 will be streamed on Facebook Live, and a link will be provided for all families to celebrate as a community,” according to information provided by LEUSD representative Mark Dennis. “In addition, the school board has generously purchased lawn signs for all graduating seniors.”

LEUSD graduations are scheduled for June 3 and 4.

Murrieta Valley Unified, too, told seniors and their parents in an announcement April 24 that while officials were not sure what restrictions will look like when graduations roll around in the first week of June and were hopeful that an in-person ceremony would be possible, they are now planning on virtual graduation ceremonies.

“Like you, we know an in-person ceremony is everybody’s preference, however, the health and safety of our students and their families and abiding by public health orders is a priority,” the district said in its announcement. “Based upon our best guess of what type of restrictions may exist when we arrive at graduation time, the decision was made to proceed at this time with having a virtual graduation at minimum.”

Murrieta Valley officials said they are still planning details of how the virtual ceremonies will be organized, but that each student will be able to participate individually and “will have an opportunity to submit pictures and/or information they would like to share with our virtual audiences.” 

“In the interim and to the extent possible, the virtual graduation ceremony will replicate as many components of an in-person graduation ceremony, including student speeches, honors and student recognition, etc,” Murrieta Valley officials said. “The ceremony will be streamed for families to view from the comfort and safety of their own homes and may be shared with friends and families throughout the world.” 

San Jacinto Unified is still looking into the possibility of an in-person ceremony down the road for students at its sole comprehensive public high school, San Jacinto High.

“It is our hope that all seniors that meet graduation requirements will participate in a virtual graduation ceremony to take place on June 4, 2020,” reads an announcement on San Jacinto High’s website. “SJHS staff, along with the district and school board, is working on details to have a traditional graduation ceremony once local and state health officials deem it safe to do so. It is our hope to have this ceremony in fall 2020, but again, we will follow the guidance of local and state authorities before providing a date. “

San Jacinto High asked students and parents to provide input on how an in-person ceremony might look by filling out a survey on its website.

Will Fritz can be reached by email at wfritz@reedermedia.com.