During her report to the Columbia School Board at the board’s meeting on Thursday, Assistant Superintendent Courtney Castelli informed the board of the district’s plans for graduation after Gov. JB Pritzker announced the state’s stay at home order would continue through May.
“We’re going to do kind of like a virtual ceremony,” Castelli explained. “And (Columbia High School Principal Brian Reeves) would still like, and I agree, that if we can open up in June that we can maybe still do a modified in-person celebration of some kind. But right now, because we cannot predict when we will be able to be together, we feel like we need to put something in place to take care of recognizing our seniors and their accomplishments.”
“We’re going to have some plans in place to do the best that we can to recognize our students and our families,” Castelli added. “If we have the opportunity, we’re going to look at ways we can do something later on as well.”
Once graduation is sorted out, Castelli said the district will turn its attention to determining with how to proceed with end-of-year awards banquets.
After the board did not discuss the graduation or question the decision, which is fairly standard for Castelli’s report, parents and students took to the comment section of the meeting’s Facebook Live video to voice displeasure with the graduation plans.
“The class of 2020 has had enough taken away,” CHS senior Lauren Roderick wrote. “Please don’t take way our graduation too.”
Individuals called for the board to discuss the matter further, not make a decision so soon, discuss options like having the ceremony on the district’s multi-purpose field, honor seniors in a non-traditional way like with a parade or postpone the ceremony indefinitely until an in-person one can be held.
“These kids have gone to school together since preschool,” parent Michelle DeFossett commented. “They want/need to walk across that stage with their friends. They have lost so much. There are other ways. Use that amazing football field we all pay for! Postpone it until they can be together. Have it in August (or) over Christmas break.
“The date doesn’t matter. The act is walking across that stage that matters. Put yourselves in their shoes. A virtual graduation is not good enough. There has to be another way.”
On the more extreme end, some people criticized the board for being lazy or “taking the easy way out,” students began saying they would boycott a “silly” online graduation and a few parents discussed organizing the ceremony themselves.
“We understand that there are very difficult decisions to be made, but this is something that I have looked forward to for forever,” CHS senior Valerie Queen said, indicating the passion fueling the discussion. “If nobody else but our class gets to be at this graduation, so be it. Please rethink this decision.
“Our hearts have already been shattered enough,” Queen continued. “We want everything. We want prom, senior celebration, our signing day at school and everything else that was taken away. We understand that not everything can happen, but as long as graduation takes place as it should, I don’t think any of us will complain. We need something.”
After the online outcry, the district issued a clarifying statement on its Facebook page the next day, reiterating that its goal is to have an in-person graduation if at all possible.
“We want to have the virtual option ready to use to recognized every individual in the class,” the district posted. “The virtual ceremony, if used, allows us to honor all of our seniors. Depending on timing, we might have seniors who will not be able to attend the rescheduled event, and we want them to have a recognition as well.”
Reeves also sent a letter to CHS students and parents saying the district will have a virtual ceremony to honor all students in case some cannot attend a ceremony at a later date.
He said the district has tentatively scheduled an in-person graduation for July 12, with Aug. 2 serving as a backup date.
Reeves also pointed out even that backup date may not be feasible, depending on the latest guidelines regarding social gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic.
Additionally, Reeves explained that students and their families will sign up electronically to come to CHS next week in small groups.
Students, who will be in their cap and gown, will individually walk across the stage to get their diploma then get their picture taken both individually and with their loved ones.
“We will stream the compiled recognition event on May 17 with the aim to still honor students and this important milestone,” Reeves concluded.