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Valley high schools and parents try to give graduates memorable commencement ceremonies amid coronavirus pandemic

During an online educational summit Wednesday hosted on Zoom, superintendents from the valley school districts talked about their approaches to this year’s graduation ceremonies.

“The big graduation ceremonies, the proms that our seniors were looking forward to those have been interrupted at this moment in time,” said CVUSD Superintendent Dr. Maria Gandera.

Still in the planning stages, details on how, when, and where the virtual events will take place are minimal. However, a representative for PSUSD said their events could happen on the days graduations are already scheduled.

Ashley Abercrombie, a graduating senior at Palm Springs High School and her father oppose the idea of a virtual graduation and they think PSUSD decided to make the change too soon.

“We’re missing out on the whole experience of caps and gowns and the stuff that comes with graduation,” said the student. 

Ashley’s father Mark, who serves on the school district’s Citizen’s Advisory Committee has started a petition drive on Change.org which now has more than one thousand signatures aimed at getting the district to host an “in-person” graduation event. 

He points to last Saturday’s Air Force Academy commencement, where cadets were socially distanced and the stands were empty.

“While we understand that the senior social type events are really unattainable at this point there is no reason some modified graduation ceremony can’t take place,” said Abercrombie.

In response to Abercrombie’s concerns, the district provided a written response from Superintendent Dr. Sandra Lyon.

The decision to move to virtual graduations instead of physical graduations was not one that was made lightly and not one we wanted to make at all,” wrote Lyon. 

During their teleconference, Dr. Lyon and the other superintendents all said they will make sure that whatever graduation ceremonies take place, the seniors will get the recognition they deserve.

“We want to survey our seniors to find out what ideas they have to celebrate their accomplishments above and beyond graduation,” said DSUSD Superintendent Scott Bailey.

“It’s a challenging situation because families and everyone looks forward to these events to celebrate all the hard work,” said Lyon. 

WRITTEN RESPONSE FROM PSUSD SUPERINTENDENT DR. SANDRA LYON:

"First, and foremost, we could not be more heartbroken about the devastating impact this virus has had on our students and families – especially our seniors. The decision to move to virtual graduations instead of physical graduations was not one that was made lightly and not one we wanted to make at all. The safety of our students, families and staff is of our utmost concern.

We have four comprehensive high schools with several hundred in each senior class this year, which would mean gatherings of hundreds to several thousand for each ceremony.  Official closure orders are in effect in Riverside County through June 20 at this time and the Governor has said repeatedly that he does not expect large gatherings to resume for at least several months.   After reviewing the County and State guidance and knowing that the likelihood of a large gathering is very, very low, we decided to move forward with planning for a virtual graduation.  Planning large scale events, whether live or virtually, takes time and we wanted to make sure we had the time to plan and prepare appropriately.  We want to celebrate and honor our graduates at the time that their physical ceremonies would have been held, as districts throughout the state are doing because many of our seniors are ready to receive their diplomas and launch into the next phase of their lives.

We have no idea how long into the future the prohibition of large gatherings will continue which makes it impossible to plan a different time; and we have been cautioned by officials that anything set for a future date is subject to change. We want to recognize our seniors now for this amazing milestone in their lives and we are supporting our high schools as they work on their own creative and unique ways to bring students and their families together through virtual ceremonies now and possible physical celebrations and recognitions in the future."

WRITTEN STATEMENT FROM CVUSD SUPERINTENDENT DR. MARIA GANDERA REGARDING VIRTUAL GRADUATION CEREMONIES:

"Unfortunately, we cannot share information with you at this time as we are in the process of developing what our virtual ceremony would look like for our students.  Once that has been determined and finalized we will share that with our students and their families.

The important thought to remember is that everyone, both family and school, want to recognize and celebrate our students for their many accomplishments; however, we must do so in a different way right now as we also want everyone to stay safe and healthy."

WRITTEN STATEMENT FROM DSUSD REGARDING VIRTUAL GRADUATIONS:

"Desert Sands High School to Celebrate with Virtual Graduations

Under the current state and county health orders, the traditional
commencement is not plausible. At a minimum, DSUSD will celebrate the
graduation milestone through a virtual event that will be held on
the same date and time as originally scheduled. This does not eliminate the
possibility of a traditional commencement once the current health orders
are relaxed.

The seven DSUSD high schools will celebrate their seniors with virtual
graduations to take place on the day and at the time originally scheduled
for the ceremonies. As a memento of their graduation in a time of national
crisis, each student will receive a gown, cap, and tassel from the Desert
Sands Unified School District Board of Education. Seniors have been asked
to participate in an online survey to share their thoughts on other ways to
celebrate this major event in their lives. In a letter sent to all seniors
of Amistad High School, Horizon School, Indio High School, La Quinta High
School, Palm Desert High School, Shadow Hills High School, and Summit High

School, Superintendent Scott Bailey provided the following congratulations,
information, and invitation to participate in the survey."

LETTER FROM DSUSD SUPERINTENDENT SCOTT BAILEY TO GRADUATING SENIORS:

"Dear Class of 2020:

The recent Riverside County Public Health order to extend school closures
to June 19, 2020, coupled with the existing shelter in place and social
distancing guidelines, present some unprecedented, heartbreaking
challenges. As a proud member of the Class of 2020, you have worked
incredibly hard and were rightly looking forward to celebrating your
milestone.

As we can’t predict when the current pandemic related restrictions will be
lifted, and if and when a physical graduation could take place, the DSUSD
Board of Education has committed to an innovative plan for a virtual
graduation for the Class of 2020. Each high school will host their
respective virtual graduation on their previously scheduled graduation
date. While we realize a virtual graduation cannot replace a traditional
ceremony, the application of state-of-the-art technology will create an
extraordinary experience. In addition, Desert Sands will be providing a
complimentary cap, gown, and tassel for every graduate to memorialize the
occasion. Graduates earning Latin honors will also be provided a
recognition stole. Details will be forthcoming.

We recognize that high schools have many other traditions that honor their
respective senior classes, such as senior sunset, prom, senior signing day,
senior awards and scholarships, etc. While we will likely be unable to hold
many of these activities in their traditional formats, we are committed to
honoring your accomplishments as creatively as possible. Thus, we wish to
capture your tech-savvy and entrepreneurial spirit in the planning process.

You will soon be provided an invitation to participate in a
ThoughtExchange. The ThoughtExchange process affords you the opportunity to share your ideas and respond to others’ ideas as well. As the exchange progresses, you will see which thoughts are most predominant. Your input will inform our planning so that your milestone receives the recognition it deserves. Please be on the lookout for your invitation to participate in the exchange.

For now, please do your best to remain engaged in your own learning and
communicate with your teachers, counselors, and principals so that you are
on track for graduation. If you have questions, ideas or need additional
help, please contact your teacher(s) and/or school principal. You can also
email your questions to workingtogether@desertsands.us.

More information on the virtual ceremonies and other celebratory plans will be available at the conclusion of the student survey."

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Tom Tucker

Tom Tucker is a veteran broadcast journalist with nearly 20 years of experience. Learn more about Tom here.

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