High school seniors long for a ‘feeling of closure’ while awaiting graduation ceremony decision


High schoolers in the Iowa City Community School District spend four years in a variety of different clubs and classes, but in May of their senior year, they all expect to walk across the stage and receive their diploma at Carver Hawkeye Arena. That is, until this year.

As seniors finish the last weeks of high school online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the format of their graduation is up in the air. In an email sent on May 1, Kristin Pedersen, ICCSD Director of Community Relations, said the district is “determined to find a way for the class of 2020 to celebrate its graduation in person, even if that celebration must be delayed.”

ICCSD is hoping it will be safer for people to gather in the coming months, and that a more traditional ceremony for the class of 2020 could be possible down the line, if they institute some social distancing measures.

The email told seniors and their families to expect a final decision by May 29.

“Allowing this cushion for a decision provides the time for conditions and restrictions to change, potentially allowing us to honor our seniors with an in-person celebration,” Pedersen said. “If we ultimately feel that conditions will not allow for us to execute this in a way that keeps our students and their families safe, then we will move to some sort of non-traditional ceremony.”

But until the final decision is announced, graduating seniors are left wondering how, and if, they will celebrate receiving their diploma.

West High Principal Gregg Shoultz held a webinar for seniors and their families on April 24 in which he discussed five potential graduation options: a seniors-only ceremony, in which students stand socially distanced on the football field, with no spectators; an all-virtual ceremony, with pre-recorded speeches, similar to the University of Iowa’s plans; a live webinar on Zoom; a drive-in-movie-style ceremony, where students and families stay in their vehicles; and a postponed, partially social-distanced ceremony in late July or early August, which would be held at the forthcoming Xtreme Arena in Coralville — provided construction on the arena is complete in time, and the pandemic has sufficiently subsided. The latter option proved the most popular in a poll of seniors and their families.

“I’m understanding of the fact that we can’t quite have a in-person ceremony right now, but I think waiting until all this blows over and we can have a large group of people would be nice, even if it’s late,” said Ronan Smith, a senior at West High. “I think just having everybody in the caps and gowns and all our families there — it’s a really nice ceremony and a good send-off for the rest of our lives.”

Smith watched his friends from the class of 2019 graduate last year and said he feels like it would be strange to move onto college without the ceremony he’s been expecting. He says any sort of virtual graduation will feel like a letdown.

“I’d rather wait for some other in-person option later down the line, but I know that might not be possible with the way things are going,” Smith said.

Fellow West senior Natalie Young also sees the value in an in-person ceremony, but is doubtful one will be possible later this summer.

“I would love to come back and be able to have a graduation, just because there wasn’t really a feeling of closure on the year, which I think has been most upsetting to me and a lot of other people,” Young said. The last time she and her peers sat in a classroom was March 13, nearly two months ago.

Young would like to celebrate graduation with her family, and she knows her peers were looking forward to walking across the stage. But she said she would rather have a digital graduation closer to the original May graduation date than plan for an in-person ceremony later.

“I feel like it would be even worse than having something online [now], if we planned to have in-person ceremonies at the end of the summer and then that couldn’t end up happening,” she said.

City High student Mira Kumar plays a special role in her school’s graduation ceremony as the class president.

Kumar began her term last May, when the disruptions caused by COVID-19 would have been impossible to anticipate. She wrote her first draft of her speech after attending the class of 2019’s graduation. Since then, she has made amendments to address the pandemic while giving her classmates a proper send-off.

“I think it can be hard to strike the correct tone and that kind of thing because what you want to do is you really want to encourage people and say we’re all in this together, but at the same time it’s very difficult right now because everyone feels very separate,” Kumar said.

Kumar wants her peers to know they are important, that they matter as individuals and as a group. She thinks COVID-19 has shown everyone’s actions have an impact. But she also wants to remind her peers of the years they spent together before the pandemic.

“Regardless of what the last couple months of high school have been, we have been in school together for, at the very least months and at the most 12, 13, 14 years, so I think that we cannot at any cost ignore that connection because it is much more important than any separation that we may have endured in this time, in terms of our relationships to one another,” Kumar said. “… We will always be the class of 2020 and we will always have that connection and even now I think that connection is actually deepened because of the shared experience.”

City High Principal John Bacon assured Kumar she will speak regardless of the format, but she is hoping she will be able to deliver her speech in person. She says graduation is a special moment, and Kumar wants her fellow seniors to celebrate it together.

Though hoping for an in-person ceremony, Kumar said pushing back graduation makes the transition out of high school a longer process.

“The moment after graduation is kind of the beginning of your life, you know? So I think that’s important, and kind of pushing it back is interesting now because it almost feels like we won’t have finished high school until later,” Kumar said.

Besides graduation, there are little things about students’ final weeks of high school that the class of 2020 say they’ve begun to miss — including suffering through the final stages of senioritis.

“It’s sort of like you build a community in your last trimester when you’re all just complaining about being there, but you’re all complaining about being there together,” Young said.

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