Ban on gatherings has most school districts looking to virtual graduation ceremonies

Districts say they hope to also schedule in-person events to honor students, as guidelines allow

CLARK COUNTY — With a ban on large gatherings set to be extended well into late Spring or early Summer, Clark County school districts are trying to figure out the best way to move ahead with graduation ceremonies, especially for high school seniors.

Graduation ceremonies are going virtual for many area school districts, with large gatherings still banned in Washington state. Stock photo
Graduation ceremonies are going virtual for many area school districts, with large gatherings still banned in Washington state. Stock photo

While several districts are still working to figure out the best approach, Battle Ground and Evergreen will move ahead with a virtual graduation ceremony, using Herff-Jones, a company that specializes in graduation apparel, diplomas, gowns, stolls, and more.

Hockinson School District is using Jostens, a yearbook company, which will take submitted videos and produce the final ceremony video to be available online.

Vancouver and Ridgefield said they are still seeking feedback and working on plans they hope to announce next week.

“We all were hoping that we could celebrate in person our seniors’ very special year,” said Battle Ground Superintendent Mark Ross during this week’s board meeting. “Unfortunately, a lot of the data is not conclusive out there as far as the options that are available to us.”

With schools closed and gatherings banned, many area school districts are moving graduation ceremonies online. Stock photo
With schools closed and gatherings banned, many area school districts are moving graduation ceremonies online. Stock photo

Ross says that any of the companies they looked at for a virtual graduation need at least a month of lead time in order to get a project done, meaning they needed to make a decision soon, rather than wait to find out if in-person gatherings might be allowed in time for ceremonies in June.

“We’ve talked about perhaps delaying graduation ceremonies, perhaps even into the fall, in August and September,” said Ross. “We run into some problems with that, in that, of course, students would be potentially off to college, off to the military, off to jobs.”

There was also discussion about limiting graduations to seniors only, but that would still be a large group, said Ross, and there was no way to know if gatherings that size might be allowed in time.

The cost to Battle Ground School District is expected to be around $12,000, or approximately $12 per student. That money will come out of contingency funding available to the district, and was approved 5-0 by the board members on Monday night.

Battle Ground School District is using an outside company to produce a virtual graduation ceremony for students and parents. Photo by Mike Schultz
Battle Ground School District is using an outside company to produce a virtual graduation ceremony for students and parents. Photo by Mike Schultz

For that money, Herff Jones will contact each student with information on how to send a graduation photo, along with a quote or short video about themselves. 

“And those are made into a virtual commencement ceremony,” says Angela Allen, the district’s director of instructional leadership.

That would include the regular commencement address, keynote speakers, and valedictorian speeches.

Allen says the district would assign people to comb through all of the submitted videos, to address any concerns over content appropriateness.

Evergreen School District is scheduling completed videos to air at the same time graduation ceremonies would have happened this year, followed by in-person celebrations when allowed.

Students in the Evergreen School District will celebrate graduation virtually in June. The district hopes to have in-person celebrations in the near future. Photo by Mike Schultz
Students in the Evergreen School District will celebrate graduation virtually in June. The district hopes to have in-person celebrations in the near future. Photo by Mike Schultz

“The journey of the Class of 2020 is quite an unusual story to tell and will continue to be as you share it for years to come,” said Superintendent Mike Merlino in a letter to families. “I know this is not how you imagined finishing your senior year. I want you to know we are doing everything we can to make this milestone special for you.”

Evergreen’s virtual graduation ceremony will be as follows:

  • Fri., June 12             Legacy High School
  • Mon., June 15          Henrietta Lacks Health and BioScience High School
  • Tue., June 16          Evergreen High School
  • Wed., June 17    Mountain View High School
  • Thu., June 18        Transitions (5:00 p.m.) / Union High School (7:00 p.m.)
  • Fri., June 19              Heritage High School

Evergreen graduates will be able to pick up a graduation gown, mortarboard and tassel at their high school, between May 11-13.

Every district has said they are hearing keen interest in having some sort of celebration for the 2020 class. That could include a drive-through event to pick up diploma covers, with teachers and administrators waving and honking. Most of the districts we contacted said those details are still being worked out, and more details would be available soon.

As for who will be featured in the videos, Battle Ground said every senior who was eligible to walk across the stage as of the date buildings were closed, which was March 13, will have a chance to be included.

“Maybe those kids in the video have to go to summer school, or haven’t quite made it there,” said Ross. “But we would rather err on not leaving any kids out, and then later screen them for getting their diplomas.”

The topic of virtual graduation ceremonies has been an unpopular one for many. A post about the issue in a Battle Ground community page on Facebook generated more than 300 comments in less than a day.

“Our daughter is in tears,” wrote one woman. “This sucks.”

“Something could be done!” added another. “Get creative.”

Still, a lot of people said their students understood that the crisis that shut down their school is bigger than missing out on graduation for now.

“My daughter is a senior too and we both feel there are worse things, like death,” said one parent. “We quarantine apart now so that when we celebrate graduation all the people we love will be there.”

“Our parents are very, very, very interested in doing some form of an in-person ceremony,” wrote Hockinson School District Superintendent Steve Marshall. “If requirements are relaxed — or if we come up with a creative format that meets safety considerations while also meeting the expectations of our families — I believe we are at the ready to pull together a live event.”

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About The Author

Chris Brown comes to Clark County Today with 15 years of local news experience as a reporter, editor, and anchor at KXL News Radio and KOIN-6 TV in Portland. In 2016, he won an Oregon Association of Broadcaster's award for Best Investigative Reporting for a series on America's Violent Youth. He has also been awarded by the Associated Press for Best Breaking News coverage as editor of Portland's Morning News following the 2015 school shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. The second oldest of eight home-schooled children, Brown graduated from high school two years early. After several odd jobs, he earned an internship at KXL Radio, eventually working his way into a full-time job. Brown has lived in Clark County his entire life, and is very excited at the opportunity to now focus full-time on the significant stories happening in his own back yard, rather than across “the river.’’ After a few years in Vancouver, he recently moved back to Battle Ground with his wife and two young daughters. When he's not working to report what's happening in Clark County, Brown enjoys spending time with his family, playing music, taking pictures, or working in the yard. He also actually does enjoy long walks on the beach, and sunsets.

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