Graduation in the pandemic: three potential plans from the MVLA district

STORY BY CARLY HELTZEL, PHOTO BY ALLISON HUANG

The iconic graduation song “Pomp and Circumstance” blares through the speakers as the senior class files onto the campus bleachers together, preparing to walk across the stage in front of the sea of their families’ faces. 

Oh wait no, never mind. 

Los Altos High School Assistant Principal Suzanne Woolfolk and Mountain View High School Assistant Principal Jon Robell last night detailed the logistical components of potential graduation plans — modified, given the raging global pandemic — also sharing the results from a survey of over 700 seniors district-wide and comments from various senior class meetings at both schools.

Results show that the priorities of the senior class are safely graduating together with their classmates; allowing spectators to view the ceremony; being able to uphold tradition and graduate on campus; and being able to symbolically walk across a stage.

Although there were three different options for an in-person graduation presented at tonight’s Mountain View–Los Altos School Board meeting, none of them check all of those boxes. 

Here is a breakdown of the options the district is considering:

PLAN A: SENIORS IN ONE CEREMONY WITH REMOTE SPECTATORS

In the first plan discussed, the entire senior class would graduate on campus in the same ceremony, with the slight possibility that they would be able to walk across the stage. But in order to space out students enough to comply with physical distancing rules, no spectators would be invited to watch in-person.

Instead, the district would hire a videographer to follow along the rows of students in spaced out chairs on the turf field, capturing each graduate standing up to be recognized as their names are called. 

The video would be broadcast live for families and spectators to watch either remotely or for seniors’ support “pods” to watch on a large movie screen as they are spaced out on the adjacent field; the logistical feasibility of having families on the field next to the one where graduates is still being examined by the district.

For students who wish to opt out of the in-person ceremony, their name and photo would be edited into the video recording.

Despite the student survey results indicating that most students care more about graduating with the whole class present than accommodating spectators, a few parents of seniors spoke out against this option during public comment of last night’s board meeting, due to a lack of parent input being considered.

“There seems to be a lack of ability for parents to weigh in on the graduation,” MVLA parent David Clark Hinz said. “As someone who had a graduate last year, I’m thinking about how the graduation is going to come off, as the family is a very important part of the graduation.” 

“As parents, I think it’s meaningful for us to be there,” MVLA parent Shiera Ariel added.

Woolfolk said she hopes to send out a widespread survey to parents as well as potentially hold a Zoom call or webinar to receive and discuss feedback from parents in the next month or so.

PLAN B: TWO MINI CEREMONIES WITH IN-PERSON SPECTATORS

In the second option presented, about half of the senior class — around 250–275 students — would graduate at a time, with two to three ceremonies being held on campus throughout the day; the larger Los Altos bleachers could accommodate enough students per ceremony to only hold two, whereas Mountain View would likely have to hold three.

Every senior would be given the same number of graduation tickets, likely four, and those spectators would sit in designated pods on the turf field to watch students stand up in the bleachers when their name is called. 

Seniors would be seated on the home-side bleachers as spaced out as they can be, which Woolfolk said is only 4 feet apart. Although there are no indications that federal, state or county guidelines will loosen to only require 4-foot physical distancing by June 4, Woolfolk said that this plan was made with that assumption.

This model also includes broadcasting a live stream of the graduation ceremony for those who are unable to safely attend.

Concerns surrounding this plan, as expressed by seniors in the survey, include losing the authenticity of traditions and speeches by having to repeat everything, fears around the rushed setup and changes between ceremonies — such as potential issues of sanitization — and not being together as a whole class.

“I selected to have graduation with as many seniors as possible and no audience … I just want to be with my friends, but it would be nice to have my family there too,” an anonymous senior wrote in the survey.

PLAN C: SINGLE CEREMONY WITH SPECTATORS, OFF-SITE

The last option, which was brought up as a possibility during the recent discussions with seniors, was to hold an off-campus ceremony at an outdoor venue large enough to have seniors and spectators spaced out safely. 

Woolfolk said they currently have a non-binding hold on the Earthquake’s Stadium, the same location as last year’s drive-in graduation ceremony video, but this time it would reserve the whole field and stands, allowing the schools the space they need to bring everyone together by spreading them apart.

She added that the owners offered to lend out the stadium itself for free, meaning the district would only have to pay for the necessary staff to operate the venue — she described it as a “very generous” deal. 

Other venues mentioned include Levi’s Stadium, which would cost at least twice as much as Earthquake’s, and Shoreline Amphitheatre, which may not have enough room and is also considerably more expensive.

The district’s non-binding hold on the Earthquake’s Stadium for June 4 will come up in two weeks, so decisions regarding Plan C must be made quickly. 

But this seeming compromise of having all graduates and spectators together may have its own pitfalls.

“There’s a lot of sentiment of ‘we love having graduation on campus,’ there’s a lot of love for Plans A and B because of that campus aspect,” Woolfolk said.

She added that one of the major concerns is whether or not being off-site would take away from the seniors’ graduation experience, a question likely to be asked in another future survey.

FEEDBACK AND NEXT STEPS

The survey of Mountain View High School students found that 75% of the 362 students who responded were in favor of a ceremony held at an off-site space large enough to hold all graduates and spectators; Los Altos High School conducted a similar survey but did not ask about off-campus options.

Slightly lower, 70% of those seniors said they were in favor of a distanced ceremony on the campus field without specifying whether or not spectators were present, and, significantly lower, only 26% were in favor of conducting three mini-ceremonies throughout the day to ensure safety. 

In the Los Altos survey of 411 seniors, 54.5% of students said that having as many seniors graduate together as possible with virtual spectators was more important to them than having a small number of family and friends and dividing it up into mini-ceremonies. 

Graduation plans will be finalized in the next month or so, with opportunities for more senior, parent and community input in the meantime; Robell said the next senior cabinet meeting in which this will be discussed is on April 7.

“We thank you for using student input so heavily,” senior and Mountain View School Board Representative Erin Coyne said.

While trying to preserve as much of the tradition and community as possible, with coronavirus restrictions still in place and an uncertain future, Woolfolk and Robell remained cautiously optimistic for lifted restrictions in June.

The limits of COVID-19 safety and inability to make everyone happy puts extra pressure on their decision, but looking forward, Woolfolk, Robell, and the team of people working to cement ceremony plans are currently focused on one thing.

“What both admin teams have agreed that we want is for both comprehensive high schools to agree on only one of the plans district-wide, with options clearly lined up for seniors,” Woolfolk said.

And through the ups and downs of planning the end goal has always been to provide as much of a traditional ceremony as possible: caps, gowns, diplomas and all.

“I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it,” Robell said.

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