The North Salem School District suffered a blow last week after it announced plans to hold high school graduation at the Four Brothers Drive-In in Amenia.
While the news was being celebrated by seniors and their parents and quickly caught the attention of national media outlets due to the district's creativity, the state's restrictions on gatherings cast a long shadow on the idea.
In a video sent to families on May 4, the district announced graduation for its 103 seniors would be held at the drive-in theater on June 22, followed by a movie and pizza.
The district signed a contract with the venue but faced backlash after it learned the state may not allow the gathering to happen.
“We are working with state and local officials to get approval. Obviously this is just in the planning stages right now,” said North Salem High School Principal Vince DiGrandi. “We signed a contract, but we know that this is a month and a half away, with the hope we’ll be able to do something.”
He said that despite limitations on gathering size, he hopes that by June 22, restrictions will be relaxed enough to allow the event to happen.
“This is not something we can plan a week before,” DiGrandi said. “We plan graduation months in advance, so, similarly, we have a two-month turnaround. This is an idea that came to us and we’re working with everybody we need to to make sure we follow whatever guidelines that we need. We hope that by June 22 or early July, social distancing guidelines are such that we can get this off the ground. Handing a diploma to a kid, to me, I have a problem doing it virtually. I would rather do it in person. They’ve worked for years (for this moment).”
In an interview with NPR, DiGrandi and Superintendent Dr. Ken Freeston said they were working with a former industrial arts teacher to make a retractable arm that extends 6 feet with which DiGrandi could hand diplomas to students in cars alphabetically organized.
“I was thinking one of those alligator grippers that my grandmother would have and I would just dip into the car with the diploma,” DiGrandi said. “They could take a picture. It’d be great.”
The high school is in the process of pre-recording the national anthem and ceremony speeches to show on the big screen.
North Salem was the first in Halston Media's coverage area to announce graduation plans, putting the pressure on other districts. School leaders are brainstorming safe alternatives to the traditional pomp and circumstance while aware that the state will have the final say.
“It goes without saying that we have been exploring as many possibilities as we can to provide a meaningful graduation for the Class of 2020,” said Lakeland Superintendent Dr. George Stone in a Facebook post. “Obviously, and understandably so, emotions are running very high around this issue. As far as other options go, we are still willing to listen."
Stone referenced North Salem's plans, saying the gathering might work for that town because of its smaller graduating class. Lakeland's is about double in size.
"The only apparent gathering options would be in smaller groups, in cars," Stone wrote. "For a larger group gathering, we would have to postpone and wait to see if later in the summer or fall the rules might change. For now, we will put the decisions on hold and await further guidance from the state and further input from stakeholders. Regardless of what we finally decide to do, it has to be within the guidelines that are allowed and respecting the importance of safety and security. Let's all take a deep breath and see what transpires."
He added that students provided feedback that they did not want to hold their ceremony at the mall and safety consultants advised against using school fields.
The Katonah-Lewisboro and Somers school districts are working with parents and students to gather input to help formulate their plans.
Like many other students, the seniors at John Jay High School in Cross River—from Katonah and Lewisboro as well as parts of North Salem and Pound Ridge—await news of their senior prom and graduation ceremonies. A team led by Principal Steven Siciliano and including seniors, parents and educators has been conferring online to fashion solutions that meet social-distancing and other virus-imposed restrictions. Siciliano "will be making an announcement soon,” Katonah-Lewisboro Schools Superintendent Andrew Selesnick said last week.
Yorktown Superintendent Ron Hattar and Somers High School Principal Mark Bayer said districts are still brainstorming.
"While it might be different, we will make it special and memorable for all our seniors and their families," Bayer promised.
Bayer said the district hopes to have safe events to celebrate seniors leading up to graduation and presented a number of options for students to provide feedback on. He also took into consideration things like yearbook distribution, prom and senior sports awards.
"I am heartbroken that the typical celebratory events that mark the end of your formal education in the Somers Central School District will need to be re-imagined or possibly canceled," Bayer wrote in a letter to students. "While there is much uncertainty about what the coming weeks and months will bring, I want you to know that we are committed to honoring you, and all you have accomplished, in the very best ways we can. While alternative plans, delays, and postponements may never make up for the loss of the traditional celebrations that were scheduled for May and June, our hope is to reschedule these events while maintaining their significance as the momentous occasions that mark this important time in your lives."