‘A year of missed milestones’: School districts get creative with coronavirus graduation plans

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A Clinton High School graduating senior smiles as she picks up her yard sign

For Mississippi’s high school Class of 2020, dreams of senior prom and walking the stage have been cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic. Seniors across the state felt sad and angered when they learned their final year would come to an abrupt end, they said.

However, superintendents and principals say they are working aggressively to fulfill those dreams, giving seniors “as close as an experience” to a graduation ceremony as possible. The Mississippi Department of Education has not issued guidance on how to conduct those ceremonies, so graduation plans are being worked out at the local level.

Mississippi Today reached out to a number of districts that expressed uncertainty about ceremony plans pending school board approval. These plans include in-person (with social distancing measures), drive-through, and filmed graduation ceremonies for the Class of 2020.

In the Canton Public School District, Superintendent Gary Hannah told Mississippi Today in an email they will conduct a “parade style” graduation on May 14 and May 15 at Clinton High School beginning at 9:00 a.m.

“We have received positive feedback. Our graduating seniors are excited,” Hannah said. “We also have a huge surprise as they will enter the campus. A parting gift of sorts that they will cherish. As you know, anything other than traditional will have challenges, but we are praying for nice weather for both of those days.”

At New Albany High School, Principal John Ferris mentioned there will be two ceremonies for students: a May 22 senior celebration and a July 31 formal celebration. On an April 29 webinar hosted by the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents, Ferris told over 90 school officials they wanted to give their seniors “the experiences they are not getting leading up to graduation.”

Similar to Canton, Ferris hopes to have a parade-style graduation on May 22 where each senior will ride in cars through town beginning at the elementary school and ending at the high school. Once seniors get out of the car individually, their names will be called and streamed on Facebook live. 

Talia Locke, principal at Long Beach High School, along with the administrative staff said students should have a say in their graduation. They created a survey asking students when, where and what type of graduation they want to have. Locke stated 130 responded and over 80 percent chose a traditional ceremony on June 26. The backup plan is to conduct a golf-cart ceremony at their coliseum.

“I think it’s very unique to our community,” Locke said. “The senior will get on one golf cart, and we’ll have the stage set up on the field and they will travel to the stage to receive their diploma.” 

After hearing the news of school closures for the remainder of the school year, community members around the state rallied behind the Class of 2020 by “adopting” students to show support in varying ways – cards, letters, money or mentorship. Aside from graduations, districts have found other ways to make their students feel appreciated.

In Choctaw County, community members were asked to turn on their lights at night-time as a way to honor their seniors, said Amber Vowell, principal at Choctaw County High School, to officials on the webinar. Choctaw County schools plan to host its graduation on May 21 at 6 p.m. on campus.

“We’re gonna turn on the football lights. Our schools will be lit up,” she said. 

Over 100 seniors at Clinton High School have picked up free yard signs to display at their homes. Clinton High will hold 19 different ceremonies over four days. The first seven are scheduled on May 16 at 10:00 a.m. for the top ten. The first six groups of 20 will commence at 11:00 a.m. The remaining 12 ceremonies will be divided over three days starting May 18 to May 20 at 4:30 p.m.

“They’ve done a lot of work to get where they are. They’ve also missed out on so much because of the coronavirus, so we wanted to do something special,” Kristen Temple, PTO president said in a news release. “We had a huge amount of the community donate to this goal, from other PTOs at other campuses, the Clinton High School Alumni Association, the 50th Anniversary Committee as well as local businesses and individuals.”

Woodward Hines Education Foundation, a nonprofit which helps students achieve higher learning credentials, also donated 1,500 yard signs to the Jackson Public Schools for their graduating seniors. The signs were delivered to the campus of each high school.

“This is a year of missed milestones,” Courtney Lange, director of communications and impact, said. “It’s the little things. The more little things we all can do to celebrate students and encourage them is important.”

If your school district has solidified its graduation plans, email [email protected]

If you are a Class of 2020 high school senior, view our Class of 2020 COVID-19 Stories page and scroll to the bottom to share your story.