District Redrafts High School Graduation Plans, But ‘Live’ Ceremony Not In The Cards

Photo: Graduation from the past at Belmont High School

In a move to placate a “large, vocal group” of parents and Belmont High School students who expressed their disappointment at initial plans for virtual graduation, the leadership of the Belmont School District presented to the public on Tuesday, May 12, a redrafted plan to honor the class of 2020 with added opportunities to celebrate their achievement during a time of pandemic.

But missing from the new five-step proposal was the one event the group, known as the Parent Brigade had been agitating for the past fortnight: for the seniors to graduate en masse, together one last time.

While the district was willing to incorporate several of the Brigade’s suggestions into the graduation, the goal of a ceremony in which approximately 330 students would gather at Harris Field for the acceptance of degrees was a bridge too far for school leadership to accept.

“The one thing we can’t give you is a live graduation on Sunday, June 7,” Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan told more than 65 participants in a video conference before the School Committee. “We worry that might not be able to happen in a safe way.”

The effort to change the original graduation theme – which was based on a virtual/remote format – was spurred on by the online Parents Brigade made up of 80 families which quickly rallied only days after the virtual event was presented on May 7. Parents and students began flooding the school administration, school committee members and town officials with pleas of a more robust ceremony.

The pressure from the group reopened the discussion of what would constitute a safe but inclusive lasting moment for the town’s senior class.

Phelan acknowledged that anything less than a traditional graduation ceremony – with parents and friends in attendance inside Wenner Field House with the time-honored trappings of striding to Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance March No 1”, walking up to the dais to be handed diplomas and throwing their caps in the air – “is a disappointment to our seniors and difficult to their families.”

Revisiting the high school’s graduation plans

With that in mind and an overlaying factor of keeping the safety and health of the students in mind, the superintendent and his leadership task force – including police, fire, the Department of Public Works, facilities, the health department, members from the district’s Central Office, and the high school administration – revisited the first iteration of graduation over the weekend and finalized changes on Monday, May 11.

The five part high school graduation program include:

  • On Friday, May 22, on their last day of school, seniors will pick up caps, gowns, and diplomas at the Belmont High School parking lot.
  • In the week before graduation, students and parents will come to the Field House to have their graduation photo taken with Principal Isaac Taylor on the stage. A video will also be taken of the diploma exchange.
  • Also the week before graduation, students will be part of a “rolling rally” in which they will drive their vehicles along a specific route – most likely going passed the town’s elementary and middle schools – before finishing at a prescribed site.
  • On Sunday, June 7, graduation will be a combined live/virtual event with speeches by Class President Caroline Findlay and the two recipients of the School Committee Award for Outstanding Achievement in Scholarships given at the Field House. Then a video will show each senior receiving their diploma.
  • Finally, there will be a class get together just before they move on to post-high school ventures. The details are still being determined when and where it will take place. If for safety reasons the event can’t take place, it will likely be held in June 2021.

“We realize that, like other districts, it’s not ideal. And like in other districts we’re trying to find the best way to recognize our community, especially our seniors at this time,” said Phelan. “We hope this five-step process with elements included from our community that … is safe for every single student who would like to attend the graduation.”

While the school committee has no say in graduation planning and its execution, the five members were receptive to the effort in creating the new plan on such short notice and incorporating the parent’s suggestions.

“I know it’s really hard to make these decisions, but I also appreciate that [the district] is marking a moment in time when it normally happens and I do think it’s really important to commemorate these events when they occur,” said the School Committee’s Kate Bowen. “When it comes to these rites of passage, it’s important to mark a moment when it happens and not delay.”

Phelan concluded by saying while the district wanted to listen to the “substantial changes” the Brigade was seeking, “the proposal that we have in front of you is one that is half cooked and ready to be fully cooked.”

A show of gratitude

Speaking for the students, senior Anna Biondo said her classmates “is a group of of strong, resilient individuals … that accept each other’s differences and are eager to work towards compromise.”

“If the Belmont public school systems wish to teach us one last lesson … let it be not one of learning to cope with disappointment but rather how to take a difficult situation and build community through cooperation,” said Biondo, who said her fellow seniors would be only too eager to comply with strict guidelines on social distancing and safety protocols at a “live” graduation to “show gratitude for our teachers, administrators and parents who fought so hard to get us to this point.”

PJ Looney, a parent of a senior and a member of the Brigade, provided the nuts and bolts of the group’s proposal.

“This class has been through a lot,” said Looney including the death of a classmate in their junior year, the disruption caused by the construction of the new middle and high school, and “then the light switched [off],” Looney said referring to the novel coronavirus that closed the school in mid-March.

“No spring sports, no clubs, no coffeehouse, no senior week, no awards night, no prom and no all-night party. If anybody deserves a graduation in person to see their [friends] one last time, it’s this class and I think we can all agree to that,” said Looney.

Under the group’s plan, the graduation would come with some important stipulations; families would need to sign a waiver, wear masks and observe strict social distancing – sitting six feet apart and approach the stage one-at-a-time – to be allowed to attend the event at Harris Field. Parents would have to stay home with only selected teachers and administrators in the stands. And the group is willing to delay the date of the ceremony to late June to August to allow the state’s regulations to mitigate the effect of the virus’ spread to take hold.

After presenting slides that showed student preferences for graduation that included a ‘live’ ceremony, Looney said the group’s proposal “is a rational plan, we’re following the rules and we’re trying to get the kids what they want and show that we believe them.”

Phelan said he would be in contact with Looney and others to discuss the matter and would present to the school committee within the week with a final proposal in an effort to “move forward” on graduation in Belmont.

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