Woodland High School’s staff, students, and community conduct commencement ceremony

In order to plan the entire commencement ceremony, the high school assembled a committee including staff, students, parents, and community members

WOODLAND — Woodland High School kicked off the first of many graduation events for the Class of 2020 on Wednesday (May 27) with a socially-distant distribution of more than 100 caps and gowns to graduating seniors. 

In order to plan the entire commencement ceremony, the high school assembled a committee including staff, students, parents, and community members to determine what a commencement ceremony might look like in these unprecedented times of statewide school closures and pandemic response.

Socially-distant cap and gown distribution with graduate recognition

On Wed., May 27, graduates from the Class of 2020 arrived at the high school to pick up their caps and gowns. In order to ensure all social distancing rules could be observed, the staff scheduled a four-hour time window for the event. As each graduate arrived, Brent LiaBraaten, Woodland High School’s choir teacher and the professional-grade announcer of all the school’s athletic events, announced the name of each graduate in true attention-getting style.

Woodland High School staff members wore masks and gloves in order to provide no-touch handoffs of graduates' caps and gowns. Photo courtesy of Woodland Public Schools
Woodland High School staff members wore masks and gloves in order to provide no-touch handoffs of graduates’ caps and gowns. Photo courtesy of Woodland Public Schools

Several staff members wore masks and gloves in order to deliver each graduate’s cap and gown in a decorative bag while respecting no-touch handoffs to the graduates. Graduates and their families smiled and waved while Rose Ruff, the school’s business education teacher, took photos using a zoom lens to create keepsakes for the grads.

Woodland High School staff members volunteered to recognize graduates and distribute caps and gowns during the carefully planned socially-distant event on Wed., May 27. Photo courtesy of Woodland Public Schools
Woodland High School staff members volunteered to recognize graduates and distribute caps and gowns during the carefully planned socially-distant event on Wed., May 27. Photo courtesy of Woodland Public Schools

How Woodland plans a commencement during a pandemic

While Principal John Shoup typically plans the commencement ceremony each year, he knew this year’s task would be too large and formed the EPIC Graduation Committee 2020 with volunteers from the staff and community members including parents of the graduates. “There were quite a few people involved in the committee which met four or five times as a whole group along with several meetings of smaller groups focusing on each element,” explained LiaBraaten.

While many other school districts in the region have opted for a virtual commencement ceremony held online, Woodland’s staff wanted to know what type of ceremony their graduates and their families would prefer. 

“We sent out a survey to our graduates providing a number of options and offering each graduate two votes – one for themselves and one for their families,” said LiaBraaten. “The graduates overwhelmingly voted for a delay of the commencement to July in hopes that an in-person ceremony, even if it must be socially-distant, may be possible by that time.”

Given that tradition defines Woodland Public Schools’ commencement ceremonies each year, the EPIC committee worked hard to not completely change the graduation ceremony. “I was very impressed with the care our community has shown these graduates,” said LiaBraaten. “The statewide closure due to the pandemic has been an incredibly difficult situation with our community suffering in its own right, but the community has come together to try and make graduation as special and meaningful as possible in these strange times.”

For graduates, the end of their time in school brings a lot of emotions in the best of times. During these unprecedented times, emotions have run higher than other years. 

“There are emotions ranging from indifference to complete devastation over the school closure and what it means for ending their high school careers,” said LiaBraaten. “The end of a senior’s time in school is a celebration of all they have accomplished along with the turning of a major page in the story of their lives; they want to enjoy it with their loved ones and friends at the school with many of our graduates having attended Woodland schools for the past 13 years.”

Devon Fliss, a special education teacher at the high school, admires the students’ maturity in handling what has been a harrowing experience for students, staff, and the entire community alike. 

“I’m impressed how the students continue plugging along with little to no complaint,” she said. “While they are certainly disappointed, my students have been accepting these crazy times with grace and stoicism.”

Much like the students, the staff has experienced many emotions during the past months since the statewide closure was enacted on March 13. 

“I tear up simply reliving the moment when Governor Inslee initially announced schools were going to close until April 27,” said Shari Conditt, a history teacher at the high school. “Watching the announcement live with my seniors in AP Government class brought incredible sadness as my students had to come to grips with the loss of normalcy and what the closure might mean.”

Not physically attending school means the loss of both the regular interaction with students each day as well as the lack of staff members interacting with each other, too. 

“I miss impromptu conversations with my colleagues in the hallway and laughing out loud with my students,” said Fliss. “I miss the feeling of complete exhaustion and satisfaction as we all finished each school week.”

For the staff, the statewide closure required quick-thinking, innovative problem-solving, and rapid implementation. 

“The pandemic caused a lot of change in a hurry,” said LiaBraaten. “There have been challenges adapting to teaching online and a lot to learn about the Google Classroom package, but Woodland Public Schools is a special place to work; we work hard, lean-in, and take care of our students.”

Staff members have also taken the opportunity to develop new skills and strategies. Fliss took three classes from universities including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Oregon State University and became a Newsela-certified educator. 

“I’ve also taken this opportunity to learn more about the Step Up to Writing curriculum and Naviance programs we plan on launching this fall,” said Fliss. “My next goal is to finish the requirements to become fully Google-certified.”

No stranger to innovative teaching techniques, Conditt has applied her talents to engaging her students. 

“For students who want to dig into certain areas of learning or improve skills they feel they lack, I’m coaching them up toward mastery,” she explained. “For students who need space to manage life outside of school during these historic times, I’m giving them the space they likely need so they can focus their attention where it matters; I’m trying to be the teacher each of my students need for wherever they are throughout this situation.”

Information provided by Woodland Public Schools.

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