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Area high schools look forward to return of in-person graduation ceremonies

Loosening state COVID-19 restrictions mean that high school seniors will have the chance to graduate in person with their classmates this spring, albeit in ceremonies that will look different than those in a normal year.

Area high schools are taking different approaches to ensure students can safely graduate in front of their peers and family members, with strategies ranging from offering multiple ceremonies to moving the events outside. All schools have to follow the same set of state restrictions in order to offer in-person graduation, such as spacing students and pods of family members 10 feet apart and requiring masks.

Graduation will cap a disrupted year for the Class of 2021, which saw the pandemic and related restrictions prevent several senior year traditions and experiences, including full-time in-person classes, school dances and attending athletic events in large groups.

“I’m so excited for the Class of 2021 to be able to have the opportunity to end their high school career together,” Louisa County schools Superintendent Doug Straley said. “We were not sure if that was going to be able to happen. But with the current guidelines, we were able to make that happen, and I think it’s important for this class.”

Louisa County High School was one of the first in Virginia to figure out how to graduate the Class of 2020 after the pandemic closed schools last year. Other schools offered walk-thru or drive-thru graduation events to give students at least a photo opportunity.

Louisa’s Class of 2021 will graduate at 10 a.m. May 19 in the high school football stadium, known as “The Jungle.” With capacity limited, seats will be assigned to students’ families and friends via a random lottery. Staggered arrival times will help spectators avoid bottlenecks at health screening checkpoints.

Louisa is using the track, bleachers and hillside next to the stadium as seating for spectators. Students will be seated on the field. Straley said they’ve worked to ensure each spot has a decent view.

“We do feel like all the seats will be good, but some won’t be quite as good as others,” he said.

That’s why the school is having students randomly draw for seating assignments during graduation rehearsals, which are mandatory.

Straley said the key to making the event “awesome” is to ensure that everyone is on the same page and knows what to expect, though he said school administrators have some surprises up their sleeves.

“We have a wonderful community and I feel very strongly that as long as they know what the expectations are, they’ll have no problem working with us to make sure we can provide the best event possible for our Class of 2021, which is what we’re all out to do,” he said. “This community always rallies to make great things happen for one another, and I don’t see this as being any different.”

Gov. Ralph Northam in March announced draft guidance for in-person graduation ceremonies. Attendance at outdoor events is limited to 5,000 people or 30% of the venue’s capacity, whichever is less.

Before that announcement, Albemarle County high schools were planning for several smaller graduations. At Albemarle High School, plans included as many as 15 separate ceremonies, said Jay Thomas, director of secondary education for the county schools.

Now, Albemarle, Western Albemarle and Monticello High schools will each have two ceremonies, while smaller Murray Community School will have one. The separate ceremonies mean more guests can attend, including faculty and staff, though tickets will be limited to four or six per family, depending on the school.

“We are really thankful that those regulations have been updated to allow these graduating seniors to have an experience, and a better experience,” Thomas said, adding that planning has been under way since the start of the school year.

Students will have the chance to pick which ceremony they want to attend and reserve tickets via an online sign-up form that will go live next week. The high schools are still planning to livestream the graduations and offer a walk-thru option for students who are not comfortable attending the larger in-person event.

AHS is planning to graduate all students in one day, on June 5, with one ceremony in the morning and another in the evening. Western and Monticello High schools both will have one ceremony on June 4 and a second ceremony the following day. Murray’s graduation is set for June 1.

Thomas said the schools are aiming to hold ceremonies that are as traditional as possible, with musical performances and student speakers. Multiple ceremonies also means the chance to have more students speak.

“They’re trying to really keep the integrity of graduation, meaning they do want to have the kids process in socially distanced,” he said.

Custodial crews will clean and disinfect the spaces in between ceremonies.

“Our kids are struggling and our families are struggling in so many different ways, and to be able to bring back any sort of normalcy is just a huge deal for the social-emotional health of our students and our families, and it’s wonderful,” Thomas said. “ We do wish we could have our entire class graduate together. But in order to do that, we wouldn’t be able to have families attend.”

Charlottesville High School students will graduate at 10 a.m. June 5 on DeBerry-Bingler Field at Theodose Stadium, Principal Eric Irizarry said.

The ceremony will be as traditional as possible, he said. Tickets will be limited to four per family. Graduation is one way the school is planning to recognize the Class of 2021. Students also will receive personalized yard signs, similar to last year.

“Even though obviously the situation is not a traditional situation, we plan to honor students on the field, have our staff there and make it a community event,” Irizarry said. “We’ll livestream it, as well, and record it for the folks that can’t make it there physically.”

Last year, CHS hosted a drive-thru graduation event to give students a chance to see their teachers and take photos throughout the campus. Irizarry said they considered continuing some aspects of that event but decided against it.

“Having that formal graduation and having that student walk across the stage in front of everybody is a little more meaningful for the students themselves,” he said.


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