In-person high school graduations are returning next month

Susmita Limbu flips her tassel during Winooski High School graduation on Saturday, June 13, 2020. After canceled ceremonies in 2020, high schools are looking forward to in-person graduation celebrations this June. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

After a year spent online, high school seniors around the state are looking forward to gathering with their classmates for in-person graduation celebrations in June.

“Being able to have an actual graduation feels particularly special this year, given the way that things were a year ago. It feels like a gift to be able to celebrate with everybody,” said Anna Wagner, a senior at Middlebury Union High School who will be starting at the University of Vermont this fall.

In 2020, schools canceled graduations and found alternative ways to celebrate. Car processions and virtual and drive-in ceremonies were among the most popular replacements.

This year, with the Vermont Forward Plan, outdoor events may now include as many as 900 unvaccinated people and any number of vaccinated people as spacing allows. For schools around the state, these new guidelines mean that ceremonies closely resembling a normal, non-Covid-19 year will be possible for the Class of 2021. Many will hold ceremonies on their athletic fields or at other outdoor locations in June.

These opportunities to come together as a whole class at graduation are needed, administrators and students agreed.

Administrators at schools all over Vermont reported receiving overwhelmingly positive responses from students and families about their plans to host in-person, outdoor ceremonies.

“The primary feedback is ‘yay,’ especially after a lot of people got front-row seats for the disruption of last year’s events,” Rutland High School Principal Greg Schilling said. Rutland organized a drive-thru celebration for the Class of 2020. This year, the ceremony will take place on the school’s athletic field.

Many schools have chosen to host their graduations on school grounds. Mount Anthony Union High School in Bennington invited its 180 graduates plus guests to the school’s football fields for June 12. At Vergennes Union High School, attendees will gather at the varsity field June 11.

At North County High School in Newport, some students were so happy with last year’s car parades that the school will host a traditional outdoor ceremony and a drive-thru for its 160 graduates, Principal Chris Young said.

For smaller schools, the planning process has looked somewhat different. The Cabot School has been able to organize outdoor activities, including ultimate Frisbee games, hikes and ski days for its senior class of 10 students. Principal Rebecca Tatistcheff intends to conclude celebrations with on-campus festivities this June. Although much has been possible because of Cabot’s class size and access to outdoor spaces, ever-changing guidelines and health situations have posed challenges nonetheless.

“The biggest challenge is trying to be cautiously optimistic,” Tatistcheff said. “While things will continue to change and evolve, we have to move forward with planning. We’re still in a moment of uncertainty.”

Wagner and her classmates at Middlebury Union have been attending in-person classes two days per week and have only seen half of their peers for much of the school year. They have also missed out on school dances, college tours and many of the other traditions that typically define their final year, according to Middlebury Union senior Bode Rubright.

“Normally I’m not the type of person who cares about graduations and events like that, but we’ve been so deprived of normalcy over the past year and a half that to have something that resembles what a normal school year would look like is awesome,” Rubright said of graduation.

For Middlebury Union Principal Justin Campbell, this year’s graduation planning has served as a reminder of the importance of the celebration.

“It’s a wonderful experience and maybe one that I took for granted in the past,” Campbell said. Middlebury’s ceremony will take place June 12.

Hosting an event for hundreds of people during a pandemic inevitably comes with a number of concerns for organizers — spacing of guests, bad weather and finding the right camera angles so families can see their graduates top the list for Rutland Principal Schilling.

Middlebury Principal Campbell has found collaboration with fellow administrators to be helpful in addressing these worries. But, no matter the planning difficulties, Campbell is certain the result will be worth it.

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Nora Peachin

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