Biddeford High seniors Chloe Gale, left, and Maggie Dallaire helped plan the school’s graduation ceremony, to be held at the Saco Drive-In on June 17. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Until March, Chloe Gale and Maggie Dallaire thought they would close out their time at Biddeford High School by marching across Waterhouse Field with 180 classmates, their parents cheering from the stands as they received their diplomas.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Instead they spent their last months of school at home, away from friends and activities and all of the traditions Biddeford seniors celebrate in the final weeks of school. There will be no senior class gathering at the beach to watch the sunrise, they won’t walk through the halls of the elementary school in their caps and gowns and they won’t march across Waterhouse Field all together.

But they will graduate together – but physically separated – at the Saco Drive-In, a twist on the traditional graduation ceremony that will still allow for much of the pomp and circumstance they’ve been expecting.

“It was really important that no matter what the situation, we get to come together. The drive-in was the only way we could do that,” said Gale, the class president. “It’s important to be together one last time before going our separate ways.”

For the Class of 2020 in Maine and across the country, this high school graduation season is unlike any other. With limits on large crowds and requirements to keep people 6 feet apart, traditional graduation ceremonies simply aren’t an option for most schools. Instead, high schools are taking awards ceremonies and senior dinners into the virtual realm and getting creative with alternative graduation celebrations.

In communities across southern Maine, lawn signs mark the homes of graduating seniors. Some schools have hung banners around town, displayed photos of graduates and encouraged the community to celebrate the Class of 2020. Graduation ceremonies will take place in parking lots, on an airstrip and at drive-in theaters during the first three weeks of June.

Some districts, including Portland, have postponed graduation ceremonies until later in the summer in hopes that larger gatherings will be allowed. In the meantime, Portland is celebrating its 570 graduating seniors with congratulatory lawn signs that were delivered to their homes by staff and parents.

Pender Makin, Maine’s commissioner of education, said during a recent press briefing that schools are making “extremely careful choices” during a very difficult time about how to celebrate locally.

“I know so many of our 2020 graduates are feeling disappointed and feeling as though this spring would have been this joyful, traditional experience,” she said. “Like 3.8 million other graduating seniors nationwide, they’re looking at something very different.”

NEW WAYS TO CELEBRATE

Logan Ladakakos, a senior at Old Orchard Beach High, picks up his cap and gown with the help of staff member Karen Murphy last week. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The Maine Department of Education released guidance for high school graduation ceremonies and related activities, but left decisions about hosting ceremonies to local school departments. But schools must also follow the governor’s “stay safer at home” orders, which limit gatherings to 50 people from June to August.

For smaller high schools, an in-person graduation ceremony may be possible if there are fewer than 50 people total, graduates and guests sit 6 feet apart, wear masks and other measures are taken to keep physical distance throughout the event, according to the department’s guidelines.

For schools planning a drive-in ceremony, the department’s guidance suggests school leaders consider the needs of families who do not have access to a vehicle and make equitable arrangements, planning is done with local law enforcement to ensure crowd control and attendees are informed they must stay in cars with the doors closed.

The department also suggests schools consider virtual ceremonies and tributes, hashtag campaigns on social media, postponement of graduation until it is safe to gather in large groups, or hosting graduation next year as an “early reunion.”

For South Portland High School Principal Michele LaForge, waiting a year to recognize the Class of 2020 was not an option. During weekly calls with other principals, she heard some talk of postponing graduations until 2021.

“(The seniors) said they wanted to be together,” she said. “To have closure and be together is essential for us. They need an endpoint, whatever it is.”

But allowing 220 seniors to march onto the football field together and graduate in front of an audience of hundreds wasn’t an option. Instead, the school department is planning five simultaneous drive-in ceremonies at the city’s elementary schools on June 7, the day seniors were already scheduled to graduate.

At noon that day, students and their families will watch a recorded ceremony with class speeches and performances at home, then drive to assigned parking spot at their neighborhood elementary school. Students, who are required to wear masks, will get out of their cars in small groups to receive their diplomas. As each student walks across the stage, their family will be allowed to walk to a marked area for a closer view.

At the end of the ceremonies, graduates at all of the locations will turn their tassels at the same time in a display of class unity.

LaForge said it is important to celebrate the Class of 2020, whose members have experienced both “real upsides and terrible downsides” during the pandemic. While some may be spending more time with family, other seniors are balancing remote learning with working to help support their family after parents lost jobs.

“They’re facing their first real hardships as adults. Many of them are extraordinarily rising to the challenge,” she said. “They are really doing a beautiful job. This graduation is a double celebration. I hope it comes to feel really good to them in retrospect.”

‘AN IMPORTANT MOMENT’

Old Orchard Beach High senior Gabe Middleton, left, is interviewed by Matt Beach of Cre8iv Co. outside the school last week. Beach is recording a 30-second message from each student to be used in a keepsake graduation video for the 52 seniors. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Westbrook seniors traditionally walk across the stage at Merrill Auditorium to receive their diplomas, a rite of passage that is part of the culture of the school that motivates students, said Superintendent Peter Lucia. When it became clear that tradition could not be held this year, school officials started planning for alternative celebrations that would be viable and safe.

“It’s an important moment for kids, it’s an important moment for families,” Lancia said “We knew we needed to make it as festive and important as we can.”

On June 6, a motorcade of cars carrying seniors and their families will travel through the city to Rock Row. As they arrive, a large screen will show a video of special messages and highlights of events, including a virtual class night and top 10 percent dinner. The graduation ceremony will be a prerecorded video of speeches and students receiving diplomas. The night will end with fireworks.

Jeffrey Guerette, a co-principal at the high school, said planning for the event included making sure it was both safe and inclusive. Community members and businesses offered to loan vehicles to families who don’t have them. He said the school wanted to have a ceremony in June so all 180 students could participate before leaving for the military, college or the workforce.

“Our seniors have been really flexible and understanding. I have a lot of respect for the way they’ve handled this entire situation,” Guerette said. “They’ve been disappointed, but they’ve been a really classy group and outstanding given the circumstances.”

Lucas Knapton, president of the Westbrook Class of 2020, said he and his classmates wanted to graduate on June 6 and he’s happy they’ll be together at Rock Row.

“I think it’s really creative and the best thing we can with what we’re limited to,” he said. “It will be one to remember for sure.”

At Marshwood High School in South Berwick, the traditional senior week of activities is being re-created with a series of virtual events that will culminate in a drive-in graduation ceremony on June 5 for students and their parents. The event, which will be live-streamed, will include surprises planned by staff and the Project Graduation committee.

Marshwood seniors told staff that it was important to them that the alternative graduation plans stick to the original timeline of celebrating the end of high school. There’s already talk about planning a special one-year reunion in 2021.

“The students have been amazing. They’ve been resilient and creative and mature through the process,” said Principal Rob Scully. “Closure right now is important.”

Sanford High School seniors will graduate at a drive-in ceremony on June 10, then travel by car in a procession through the city so community members can applaud their accomplishments, according to Principal Matthew Petermann. The ceremony will be broadcast live on local radio and television stations.

Matt Beach of Cre8iv Co. sets up his equipment last week to record Old Orchard Beach High senior Logan Ladakakos for a graduation video. John Suttie, the principal and superintendent, said most students are being positive about the modified graduation plans but he knows “this has been a very hard time in their lives.”  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

In Old Orchard Beach, graduation will be celebrated on June 7 using a combination of prerecorded messages and an in-person gathering. The school will record speeches and 30-second video messages from all of the students, then produce a keepsake graduation video for the 52 seniors.

On graduation day, students and their families – up to 10 people – will have a scheduled 10-minute opportunity to receive their diplomas and pose for photos at the Seaside Pavilion, where graduation is held each year.

Last week, seniors picked up their caps and gowns and filmed interviews for the graduation video. John Suttie, the principal and superintendent, said most students are being positive about the graduation plans, but he knows it hasn’t been easy for them.

“This particular group of kids was dealt a very difficult hand. This has been a very hard time in their lives,” Suttie said. “They’ve gone through 13 years of public school and they don’t get to celebrate graduation in a traditional sense, as well as losing out on sports and activities and trips. They’ve given up a lot and it was imperative on us to come up with something different and creative that would be special for them.”

Suttie said he and the graduating seniors are holding out hope that they will be able to have prom in August and another informal opportunity to get together as a class to say goodbye before summer is over.

GRADUATION AT THE DRIVE-IN

When schools first shifted to at-home learning because of the virus outbreak, Biddeford school leaders hoped they could have an in-person graduation ceremony at some point during summer. When guidance from the state about large gatherings was released, they did a quick pivot to planning something unlike any past graduations, said Principal Jeremie Sirois.

After listening to ideas from other principals and talking to seniors, the school settled on a plan to produce a video graduation ceremony that includes prerecorded speeches and shows each graduate receiving their diploma at Waterhouse Field. Small groups of students will be filmed getting their diplomas in the weeks leading up to the June 17 graduation video presentation at the Saco Drive-In.

“Over these last couple of months, these kids have lost out on a lot of stuff. They thought they were going to play baseball and lacrosse. They bought dresses for prom and were planning their class trip. Having that stuff not happen has been devastating for them,” Sirois said. “We needed to do something special for these kids. If being in-person at Waterhouse Field isn’t an option, we had to come up with the next best thing and make it memorable.”

Gale and Dallaire, who is the class secretary, were involved with the planning and said most of their classmates seem to understand that the drive-in graduation is their best option to celebrate together safely.

“They’re trying to look on the bright side of things,” Gale said. “I feel very blessed we get to be together.”

Though she is sad about missing out on a traditional graduation, Dallaire thinks their new plan will still be special. She and her friends plan to park their cars next to each other at the drive-in so they can graduate “together.”

“It’s amazing everyone will remember the Class of 2020 as the class that had everything taken away from them but still got through it,” she said. “I think everyone is focusing on what we can do together. We’re trying not to focus on the sadness.”

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