Some Michigan high schools pivoting to hold traditional graduations

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

The first time all school year that the class of 2021 from Novi High School will be together as one group will also be their last day together — graduation on June 5.

The moment became possible after Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer this week moved forward plans to lift COVID-19 restrictions and said outdoor capacity limits disappear June 1.

Novi Community Schools Superintendent Steve Matthews said Friday he tentatively changed the plan for graduation, which had been to run three separate ceremonies at the school's outdoor stadium, spacing seniors apart in groups of 150 to 160 each based on previous state rules on capacity.

"Now there are no restrictions for outdoors, we will have one ceremony for graduates on the field," Matthews said. "Anyone who wants to come can sit in the bleachers or in bag chairs on the track. We will let people make their own decision."

Students leave Novi High School on Sept. 8, 2020.

Matthews is only calling the plan tentative in case there are more changes from state leaders, but he expects the plan to stick.

With students separated into groups for learning at school and some learning in-person and others virtually, Matthews said graduation will the first time many of the 500 seniors have seen each other all year.

"They will have an opportunity to be together one time this year at graduation," Matthews said.

An indoor mask mandate for people who are not vaccinated will remain in place through June under the new order, which is expected to be updated Monday. The state will lift the broad mask and gathering orders on July 1, Whitmer said.

Many high schools have already held outdoor graduation ceremonies that were socially distanced. Some held drive-thru events to let seniors celebrate their achievements.

The governor's decision came too late for some districts that are having scaled back and limited graduation ceremonies this weekend. 

Roseville Superintendent Mark Blaszkowski said there are no changes to the high school's drive-up graduation ceremony which is similar to the graduation event for 2020 graduates last year. About 300 seniors will be in their vehicles when they "drive up" and graduate.

"It takes a lot of planning to put these together and you can't change on a whim," Blaszkowski said. "We have three weeks left. Let's ride it out and do what we have been doing."

Officials at Detroit Public Schools Community District, which expects about 3,000 seniors to graduate this spring, said they are reviewing the changes but each high school sets its own graduation date and makes its own plans.

"Due to the recent announcement to allow greater capacity for outdoor events, we are reviewing the options to expand capacity at all high school graduation ceremonies," DPSCD spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said. "We will make a decision regarding this issue next week."

Berkley High School just changed its venue and date for graduation earlier this week, moving the ceremony from June 3 at Meadow Brook Amphitheatre where seniors had a two-guest ticket limit to June 2 at DTE Energy Music Theater where graduates can get four guest tickets.

Principal Andy Meloche said on Friday he is in talks with the venue and its promoter 313 Presents to see if students from the Oakland County school can get more tickets to bring guests. Pre-pandemic, the number was six tickets.

"I don’t know yet. What they told us was they need a chance to sit down and read through this," Meloche said.

Utica Community Schools, which has more than 2,200 graduates across six high schools, has planned graduation ceremonies for June 5-6 at the Michigan Lottery Amphitheater at Freedom Hill.

Its four largest high schools — Eisenhower, Stevenson, Henry Ford II and Utica — planned to have two ceremonies. The smaller high schools — The Gene L. Klida Utica Academy for International Studies and Utica Adult Education/Utica Alternative Learning Center — planned to have one.

District spokesman Tim McAvoy said the district is reviewing the announcement from the state and is working closely with management teams from the venues.

"Prior to the announcement, there was a two-person ticket limit. We will communicate changes to families next week," McAvoy said.