Delayed? Online? Schools try to preserve graduation ceremonies, in some form

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Graduations are going to look different this year, but in many Michigan school districts and colleges, they are still going to happen.

The coronavirus has sidelined high school seniors' long-held dreams of walking across a stage in front of hundreds of onlookers, raising their diplomas in the air and embracing loved ones after years of study.

Clawson High School secretary and senior class adviser Sharon Cotter puts up a poster for senior Joseph Pancost as assistant principal and athletic director Kelly Horne, niece Josie Cotter and other volunteers help give the school's 132 graduates a moment in the sun.

Many schools have canceled ceremonies and planned "virtual" graduations online. Others are talking about drive-by ceremonies where students stay in a car and wave to teachers and staff at their high school or in their community.

One Michigan high school principal is getting creative.

Clawson High School principal Billy Shellenbarger has masterminded a plan to hold an in-person, outdoor graduation ceremony for his 132 seniors in late June — by appointment.

Each grad will have a three-minute time slot to get on the high school's athletic field, stand on the giant letter C in their gap and gown, and collect their diploma.

Shellenbarger said it will take seven hours over two days to do it under stadium lights and using a public address system, but his seniors deserve the recognition for all their hard work over the last 13 years.

"In a tight surgical process, each senior will get honored at midfield. They will be by themselves in caps and gowns," he said. "It will very be tight in three-minute increments, but all 132 will be honored."

Parents can attend, but all social distancing rules and executive orders in effect on June 26 and 27 will be followed, said Shellenbarger, who is presenting the plan to the school board on Monday for approval.

"It's the benefit of having a small school. With 132, we can do it," he said. "Even if it took four or five days to do it, they are a great class, and they deserve it."

In some cases, students are resisting the online graduation alternative. Deyana Sarkis is holding on to her goal of receiving her diploma in front of family, classmates and teachers, despite the reality of the coronavirus.

Lidia Daewood, left, of Shelby Township and her daughter Deyana Sarkis are still hopeful for a graduation ceremony.

The idea of sitting in front of a computer — again — at home — again — and to graduate from high school via a virtual ceremony is something the 2020 Utica Community Schools graduate is pushing back on — hard.

The Eisenhower High senior started an online petition at that calls for the Macomb County school district to postpone graduation ceremonies to later in the year in lieu of holding virtual ones for seniors.

Having that milestone moment happen in the traditional way is important to more than Sarkis herself.

"I am the first to graduate in my family," she said. "My parents are from Iraq. My mom had to help at home and didn’t graduate high school. I have an older brother. He did not graduate. He got his GED later.

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"My mom, when I read her the email they would go to virtual graduation, right away started crying. I was disappointed to see the district would just settle for a virtual graduation instead of postponing or doing something that would mimic the feeling of a ceremony more for all the students."

The petition had more than 2,800 signatures as of Friday.

According to, more than 500 petitions from across the country have been started by students and parents who want in-person graduation ceremonies, including students from six Michigan high schools and two Michigan colleges.

Students from Utica Community Schools and Fitzgerald High School in Macomb County, Gaylord Community Schools in Otsego County, Manistee High School in Manistee County, South Christian High School in Kent County and Kelloggsville High School in Kent County, as well as Oakland University and Gogebic Community College, have all launched petitions to push their institutions to wait and hold in-person ceremonies.

'Plan B'

Across Michigan, high schools and universities have canceled in-person graduation ceremonies due to concerns about the global pandemic and in response to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home order and edict against large gatherings.

Utica Community Schools officials said last week that they, too, are disappointed in the end of this school year and the virus' impact on high school seniors.

Tim McAvoy, a district spokesman, said the next few weeks will determine how the district is able to best uphold this tradition. 

"We know that the traditions are extremely important to our families and the Class of 2020," McAvoy said. "Our high school graduation ceremonies are still scheduled for the first week of June. Given the size of our graduations, the amount of planning that is required, and the importance of the event, our schools have been preparing for the possibility of a virtual graduation."

The district's plans for a virtual graduation do not preclude a public event, McAvoy said, but the governor's stay-home order and social distancing requirements remain in place.

"We have six graduation ceremonies between our high schools," McAvoy said. "A single graduation event for us can involve up to 3,300 participants, and we recognize that large gatherings put many more people at risk than just those who directly attend the ceremony."

Two Utica district parents have also launched a petition on calling for a "plan B" graduation ceremony.

Parents Colleen Laurian and Toni Gasperoni wrote on their petition that they are proposing an in-person graduation ceremony for seniors with minimal faculty and staff only.

"Yes, this alternative does not include us parents at the actual event," the petition says. "It does, however, provide an opportunity for a memorable experience for our children to celebrate together as a senior class while adhering to social distancing guidelines and minimizes the number of people at the actual event."

The parents are asking a local TV station to livestream the event so families can watch at home, for students to be picked up by school bus 13 to 15 at a time and taken to a district field for the event.

Students and anyone attending would be required to wear a face mask if the governor's orders still stand on social distancing, the petition says, and students would have to stand eight feet apart.

Gasperoni said she was motivated to push for change because her first-born child, Angelo, is graduating from Eisenhower High School.

"It’s a right of passage," said Gasperoni, her voice getting emotional. "These kids have worked hard. It's a part of a celebration and connecting with each other and making memories.

"Anyone, no matter what age they are, can have a memory of graduation. It's more or less a rite of passage for the kids, the families and the community."

Laurain, whose son, Ryan, is a 2020 graduate at Eisenhower, said she got the idea after reading about the Air Force Academy holding an in-person graduation ceremony without parents to reduce the size of the group.

"That had a higher probability of being a probable plan versus a larger group," Laurain said. "We are really trying to drive change. We are hoping we can drive another alternative for them to consider."

Oakland University student Jacob Adams created an online petition for an in-person graduation.

Universities' plans

Universities and colleges across Michigan also have struggled with graduation ceremonies amid the pandemic.

Michigan State University held a virtual commencement celebration on Saturday for all undergraduate and graduate students. MSU officials said the virtual event does not replace an in-person ceremony and members of the class of 2020 will be invited to participate in a future in-person commencement.

The University of Michigan and Wayne State University already held virtual events for graduates last month. But Oakland University is still deciding its plans for 2020 spring graduates.

Oakland University graduate student Jacob Adams also started an online petition to demand an in-person ceremony, when one is safe to hold, for graduates of OU.

Adams, who earned a master of public administration degree, said OU announced in March it was moving its spring commencement to August due to COVID-19.

Then on May 1, the university sent a survey to graduates offering two options if a postponement or cancellation of commencement happens again: having a virtual ceremony or attending fall commencement in December.

Adams, 26, of Westland, said a virtual ceremony is unacceptable and downplays all of the hard work he and other graduates have done.

"The accomplishment for me and the headaches and all that, it means a lot that we have that split second when you walk across the stage," Adams said on Wednesday. "If I had wanted a virtual graduation, I would have done all of my classes online."

Adams said he would wait until August, December or next year to experience graduation in person.

"I understand our lives are not normal today. We still have earned the right to be able to have a formal graduation," Adams said.

OU officials said the university is considering three options: a one-year anniversary commencement in April, a drive-in-style commencement with some live and recorded parts, and a virtual commencement.

"Students' and parents' safety is one of our main priorities. We will have to wait on the executive orders and the CDC guidelines to make decisions on in-person campus celebrations," said Stephanie J. Lee, OU's administrative associate to the provost.

Lee said she did see the petition by Adams and understands, as a two-time alumnus, the need for students to have a sense of closure to their academic career at Oakland.

"I really understand how important it is to celebrate with love ones and friends," Lee said. "We are trying our best to have the students celebrate their accomplishments in a memorable way."