A ‘drive-in’ graduation

District schools are adapting their class of 2020 grad ceremonies to COVID-19 restrictions

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

Every graduation ceremony is memorable, but, for the senior class of 2020, their big day will go down in history as the first to adapt to the social distancing guidelines put in place to lessen the spread of COVID-19.

Trustees of the Lake Pend Oreille School District met May 12 with Superintendent Tom Albertson to go over the plans for graduation ceremonies at Clark Fork, Sandpoint and Lake Pend Oreille high schools, emphasizing that “it’s very, very important for us to be celebrating our seniors,” Albertson said.

Under the plans, which are all still tentative, Clark Fork High School will keep to its Wednesday, June 3 date, though that puts the ceremony within Phase 3 of the four-phase “Idaho Rebounds” plan to gradually lift COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings. 

A sign honoring graduating seniors at Sandpoint High School. Photo by Ben Olson.

To accommodate the guidelines, which prohibit gatherings of more than 50 people, Clark Fork will erect a stage outdoors in front of the school with families watching from their parked cars as this year’s 21 graduates file past to receive their diplomas.

Likewise, Sandpoint High School’s ceremony will take place within Phase 3 of the reopening plan, with its date set for Friday, June 5. 

Similar to Clark Fork, the “blended traditional and drive-in graduation” will require attendees to watch the proceedings from their vehicles, arranged in the high school parking lot in rows facing a stage and large projection screens. Graduates — all 231 of them — will be called to exit their vehicles and gather in groups of 40 at a time on the southeast grassy area before crossing the stage and returning to their vehicles.

“The main idea is that we’ll invite every senior to drive into the parking lot — it’s one car per senior, however many family members they can fit in their car,” said Sandpoint High School Principal David Miles. “Everyone will still get to see everyone else graduate and they’ll still have that opportunity to walk across the stage.”

Along with the large projection screens, Miles said the school is working with Bluesky Broadcasting to air the ceremony over the radio, though it is still undecided on what frequency the event will air. The 5:30 p.m. ceremony will also be broadcast on Facebook live.

“There will be lots of options for people who aren’t even physically here to see the graduates,” Miles said.

Lake Pend Oreille High School had intended to celebrate its 19 graduates of the class of 2020 on Thursday, June 4, but decided to move the ceremony to Monday, June 15, when the state has moved into Phase 4 of the reopening plan and groups of more than 50 are allowed.

The event is scheduled to take place at the Sandpoint Events Center using social distancing, masks and other public health precautions. Albertson said the target is for between 80 and 100 total attendees, who will be required to remain 10 feet apart.

“As of now, those are the three plans, which I feel fairly solid about,” Albertson said, adding that he’s leaving the details of each ceremony up to individual principals and their staff. “The good news is that we have a plan for celebrating the hard work and 12 years or 13 years of education of these graduates.” 

Miles said discussions and planning about how to adapt this year’s graduation to the often-changing restrictions imposed by COVID-19 began immediately after district officials decided to transition to distance learning in mid-March. As the Idaho Rebounds plan took shape in April, it became more feasible to start establishing firm plans, and both Albertson and Miles underscored that schools engaged in outreach to gather feedback from students and their families. A survey went out to Sandpoint High School students last week, Miles said, and the current option came out as the most-favored.

“I think we’re making it as normal as we can while still holding to the requirements that we operate under from the governor’s reopening plan and the health district,” he said.

For instance, the valedictorian and salutatorian speeches will go on as they always have, graduates will still don the distinctive cap and gown, and they will receive their Sandpoint High School diploma covers as decades of students have before them. 

Caps and gowns and honor cords will be available for pickup on Thursday, May 28 and Friday, 29 at “Senior Days,” when seniors are invited to pick up their graduation gear as well as take care of other end-of-the-year requirements. Students and their families are invited to attend — while observing social distancing guidelines — to take pictures.

Miles said he expects a fair amount of honking as attendees lay on their vehicle horns to celebrate their friends and family members cross the stage during this year’s ceremony, but that’s really no different than the “hooting and hollering” that typically characterizes the event, which in the past has typically drawn around 2,500 people. 

This year that number will no doubt be lower, as attendance will be limited to one vehicle per graduation, and that is simply because the parking lot doesn’t have that many spaces.

“I get that it’s not ideal, but it is what it is,” said Miles. “You can’t make everyone happy, of course … [but] we appreciate everyone’s patience and understanding.”

For Miles, himself a Sandpoint High School graduate, one of the things that makes him unhappy is the difficulty of maintaining social distance while celebrating such a major milestone in his students’ lives and education.

“I’m into handshakes, so I’m still trying to figure out how to handle that,” he said.  

Recognizing how anxious area students and their families are about the nuts and bolts of this year’s graduation, Albertson stressed to the trustees that the plans as they are have met with approval from state and local public health officials while also aiming to acknowledge the graduates for their years of hard work. 

It’s a balancing act, he said, “with what would be most meaningful and respectful to the graduates but still stay within the social distancing guidelines.” 

LPOSD Board Chairman Cary Kelly expressed his thanks for the flexibility and thought that had gone into crafting the various graduation ceremonies.

“I’m very pleased with the planning that’s going on and that we’re going to be able to recognize these students,” he said.

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