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Upper Valley graduation ceremonies find myriad ways to adapt to the pandemic

  • Lebanon High School graduate Peter Ogrinc throws his mortar board on the football field in Lebanon, N.H., on Wednesday, June 3, 2020. Cheering him on are his parents, brother and family members. School photography teacher Todd Matte documents the moment. Students were photographed and videotaped at six different stations at the school as part of a virtual graduation. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • After having her name announced, Lebanon High School graduate Rebecca Wright walks to the stage with her sister Emily Wright, left, friend Mikayla Thornton and mother Doris Villandry watching and recording on Wednesday, June 3, 2020 in Lebanon, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Lebanon High School graduate Irina Stan helps her mother pin a carnation on her graduation gown while her father Radu Stan watches on Wednesday, June 3, 2020, in Lebanon, N.H. The family was about to embark onto the football field at the high school for the school's virtual graduation. The family lives in Lebanon. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • With a group of friends, Michelle Chamley, of Plainfield, N.H., cheers for Lebanon High School graduate Anthony Perriello at the school in Lebanon, N.H., on June 3, 2020. Chamley changed the name on the sign six times for different graduates. The number of family and friends were limited during a taping of graduation events. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/6/2020 10:18:02 PM
Modified: 6/6/2020 10:17:59 PM

Every year in late spring, a scholastic ritual takes place across the Upper Valley in a format that seems timeless. Students dressed all alike march to their seats to the same song, listen to speeches from their classmates and an authority figure or two, then walk across the stage to receive their diplomas while family members take photographs. Tassels are moved, caps are thrown, cheers and tears spill from graduates and onlookers alike.

But this spring, with so much that is familiar turned sideways by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, graduation has taken a turn, too.

For example, Mascoma Valley Regional High School has moved its graduation exercises to July 31, in hopes that restrictions on public gatherings will have been lifted by then.

“We’re really trying to have as normal a graduation here as possible,” said Liam Hemmerling, president of Mascoma’s senior class. “But obviously that will depend on the state of the pandemic and whether it’s safe to do so.”

In the meantime, Mascoma will celebrate its senior class with a car parade at 6 p.m. June 12, starting at the high school in West Canaan and proceeding through some of the district’s five towns (Enfield, Canaan, Grafton, Orange and Dorchester).

Likewise, Woodsville High School has planned a graduation ceremony at 10 a.m. Aug. 8 on King’s Plain, the school’s customary graduation site, but will also hold an event at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, a class night, at Fairlee Drive-In for seniors and “a very limited number of guests,” according to Dean of Students Mike Strauch.

At most schools, the automobile has become central to graduation. Woodstock Union High School plans to hold a “walk and drive-thru graduation” at 5 p.m. on Friday, followed by a “Saluting Our Seniors” parade around the town green.

The next morning at 10, White River Valley High School in South Royalton plans to hold a drive-in ceremony on Hope Field, across the street from the school. The event requires tickets, and graduates will walk up to receive diplomas and scholarship awards in gift bags. Graduates must wear masks, but can remove them for photographs, the school said in a letter to graduates and their families. Parades between the district’s two towns, Bethel and Royalton, to celebrate major events are not unheard of.

For Hanover High School seniors, graduation started a couple of weeks ago when they went to get their caps and gowns and record a short video message that included turning their tassels and tossing their caps, senior Zofia Zerphy said. Those videos will be compiled, along with the graduation speeches, and sent out. Seniors also will receive graduation boxes containing their diplomas, awards and notes from the school. Hartland, where Zerphy lives, held a parade Saturday for its seniors, even though the town doesn’t have a high school, and a car parade from Norwich to Hanover is planned for Friday.

As informal as many of these ceremonies sound, instructions from school officials, designed to follow health and safety guidelines, are often complex.

At Rivendell Academy’s graduation ceremony, which was scheduled for Saturday, families were to remain in their vehicles, except for when the graduate walked up to accept his or her diploma.

“When out of the vehicle, masks are to be worn, with the exception of when pictures are being taken,” school officials wrote in a description of the ceremony’s protocols. “Guests should ensure they stay at least 6 (feet) apart from non-household members at all times.”

And in most cases, schools are mixing some form of in-person, but physically distant, form of celebration with virtual celebrations. Windsor High School held a Senior Awards Night on Wednesday and a Senior Breakfast on Friday via Zoom, the online networking platform. “Please have your cap and gown nearby for a group virtual picture after the slideshow,” reads the notice for the breakfast. Later Friday, from 3-8 p.m., Windsor held individual graduation ceremonies for seniors and their families, and a car parade was scheduled for Saturday morning.

Windsor, like many other schools, made yard signs for seniors to display and to keep.

In Thetford, those signs have been up on the green in Thetford Hill. Thetford Academy is holding a virtual ceremony at 5:30 p.m. Friday, with student speeches and performances, viewable on Facebook and YouTube. A car parade through town is planned for 7:30. Individual graduation ceremonies will take place the next day on the school quad.

Thetford Academy senior Frank Loveland titled his graduation speech “Taking Advantage of the Pandemic.”

“What is the use of complaining about this pandemic that ended our last semester of high school; that took away a prom, a traditional graduation, and that took us away from our closest friends and the community that we had managed to form?” he wrote.

Hartford High School plans to hold its Senior Awards Evening at 6 p.m. Saturday on YouTube, with physical awards to be handed out at graduation at 7 p.m. Friday at the school’s Alumni Sports Complex. Again, graduates and their guests will need tickets and will stay mostly in their cars.

CATV, the White River Junction community television nonprofit, regularly records graduations, but with virtual life more central than ever, its work will have a new significance. Hartford’s ceremony will be taped for broadcast, and many of the graduates’ loved ones will be able to see the graduation only via video.

Local radio stations also are pitching in, with WNTK broadcasting the Sunapee Middle High School graduation, which was held Friday evening in a parking lot at Mount Sunapee Resort.

Lebanon High School officials opted to combine an in-person ceremony with a future broadcast. Last week, graduates and their families were given times to arrive at the school. After parking their cars, they moved from circle to circle on the school’s football fields, where volunteers took photographs, and where the graduates received folders in lieu of diplomas, for now. The ceremonies were recorded for broadcast at 6 p.m. this Thursday on CATV and YouTube.

The Lebanon ceremonies were put together with input from students, parents and faculty, Principal Ian Smith said. “We had to abide by the guidelines,” he said, “and we wanted to be outside and we wanted to have the formalities.”

Students were allowed to bring no more than nine guests. “We had some people expecting 20-plus folks and then their party had only three people,” Smith said.

Even so, he said, both parents and students have appreciated that the school provided something like a normal graduation ceremony. Lebanon also will hold a car procession at 11 a.m. Saturday around Colburn Park.

“I think it was very successful,” said Madeline Wolfe, a Lebanon High senior from Grantham and a member of the Student Council.

While the ceremony was “as close to a normal graduation as possible,” Wolfe said, it’s the abnormality of it that will stick with her and her classmates and help bind them together as a group.

“I think part of it is hard,” she said. “Also, I almost think we would stay closer, because it is that common experience.”

She’s grateful, she said: “For what the situation is, I feel like we sort of got the best of it.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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