Senior class president Emily Sawyer outside Westbrook High School on Tuesday. The school’s graduation will be held indoors at the Cross Insurance Arena. in Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

By the time Emily Sawyer puts on her cap and gown on and walks into the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland on June 5, more than 15 months will have passed since she was surrounded by all of her classmates.

To say Sawyer, the senior class president at Westbrook High School, and her classmates are excited may be an understatement.

“We haven’t seen a whole half of our class since March of last year,” Sawyer, 18, said. “I’m really looking forward to everyone being brought back together one last time. … I think everyone is looking forward to a little bit of normalcy.”

The Westbrook seniors logged into remote classes last spring when the pandemic shut down schools and this year were split into two cohorts to attend in-person classes two days a week. Throughout it all, they didn’t know if they’d be able to have a graduation ceremony that felt anything close to normal.

But after a year marked by challenges and uncertainty, the Class of 2021 from Westbrook and other high schools across Maine will graduate next month in ceremonies that will feel more traditional than the virtual and drive-in graduations held last spring when crowds were limited to 50 people. School administrators in southern Maine say they wanted to find ways to bring families together to celebrate the strength and resiliency students have shown through the pandemic.

They’ve missed out on sports and theater productions, music performances and homecoming dances. For most students, there were no proms or senior trips. They split their time between online classes and socially distanced classrooms. Many wondered if they’d be able to walk across a stage to receive their diplomas.

“Our seniors, like all seniors across the country, have had a difficult year. It hasn’t been what they were hoping for or what they’d expected,” said Jeffrey Guerette, co-principal at Westbrook High School. “They’ve shown a tremendous amount of resiliency and handled the whole pandemic with class.”

During the first week in June, high schools in Cumberland and York county will hold graduations on football fields and arenas big enough to allow graduates and guests to spread out. But many other year-end events, including awards nights, will be held virtually to limit exposure and the chance that quarantines would force last-minute changes to graduation plans.

As it did last year, the Maine Department of Education released guidance for schools districts to follow for graduation ceremonies, which are held at the discretion of local school boards and superintendents. All ceremonies must be held in compliance with executive orders from Gov. Janet Mills and guidance from the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development and Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

School officials planning graduation events have to follow the state’s checklist for large venue ticketed events and for months have been planning to meet requirements for at least 6 feet of space between people or household groups up to 10. Mills announced on Thursday that all capacity limits and requirements to physically distance at outdoor venues would be lifted on May 24. She also lifted capacity limits indoors and eliminated physical distancing except when masks are removed for eating or drinking.

Because graduations fall under the DECD’s large venue guidance, the announcement from Mills may expand what schools can do, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Education.

But school officials said late last week that they haven’t yet made any decisions about how graduation plans could change and are waiting for more guidance from the state.

The Department of Education provided ideas for school staff to consider as they plan for graduation ceremonies, including providing a professional photographer to take photos so families don’t move around to take their own, recording music and speeches ahead of time to stream to the audience, and providing increased distancing and precautions for people with underlying health conditions. Masks are also recommended for outdoor ceremonies but a requirement for masks outdoors was lifted on April 27.

Commissioner of Education Pender Makin said in a message of congratulations to high school seniors that they “have given us many reasons to be proud.”

“You have persevered through a historic and nationwide disruption to our education system, and you have truly stepped up to overcome unprecedented challenges. It is clear that Maine students face hardship with strength and become even stronger,” she said. “We have seen Maine students face uncertainty with courage and become even braver. We have been inspired by your creativity, your optimism, and your kindness and we celebrate your academic achievements.”

‘THEY WILL BE JOYFUL’

Classes were still being held remotely last spring when principal Michele LaForge and others from South Portland High School began trying to figure out how to hold a graduation ceremony. Holding a large ceremony for more than 200 graduates and their guests at the schools’ Martin Field just wasn’t an option. Instead, the high school hosted five small drive-in graduation ceremonies at the city’s elementary schools.

LaForge said plans were underway for most of this school year to hold similar small graduation ceremonies in June, but students made it clear they wanted to be together even if that meant the number of guests would be limited.

“We threw those plans out and started again. We tried to create as much of (a) traditional ceremony as we could,” she said.

This year’s ceremony will be held on Martin Field with speeches, music and up to four guests per graduate. The school district recently spent $7,500 to install cables to improve the quality of a livestream of the June 6 ceremony. LaForge said the focus in planning has been to create an occasion that is as joyous as possible for a group of students who pulled together to weather the pandemic, confront racial injustice and support one another as they missed out on traditional high school milestones.

“They will be joyful, I think, to be together,” LaForge said. “This class has really found their way to each other during this time.”

In Westbrook, seniors are gearing up for a graduation at the Cross Insurance Arena, a larger venue than Merrill Auditorium where Westbrook graduations are traditionally held. Last year, the school held a drive-in graduation ceremony at Rock Row in Westbrook that featured a car parade of graduates and a prerecorded video.

Guerette, the co-principal, said the school is still working on plans to recognize seniors in other ways, including banners along William Clarke Drive. To limit the possibility that gatherings would lead to quarantines before graduation, the school will hold virtual year-end scholarship and award ceremonies for the 150 seniors.

Guerette said it’s important to celebrate students who have been flexible and resilient even when they’re disappointed about missing out on proms and being with all of their classmates.

“They’ve really risen to the occasion in a year that certainly hasn’t met their expectations,” he said. “I can’t get over how well they’ve handled it.”

Portland Public Schools will hold in-person commencement ceremonies for about 500 graduates from three high schools on June 2 and 3. Last year, the school department delayed graduation ceremonies until August, when each high school hosted a drive-in ceremony at the Ocean Gateway terminal that was broadcast live on a local radio station.

To comply with state health guidelines for large gatherings, Deering and Portland high schools will hold outdoor ceremonies. But Casco Bay High School, which has fewer students, will be able to hold its graduation ceremony at Merrill Auditorium. Students from all three schools will receive a video and professional photos of their ceremony.

Superintendent Xavier Botana said the Class of 2021 has a lot to celebrate, including not letting the pandemic stop them from achievements in academics, athletics and other activities.

“Last year’s graduations showed us that the venue or modality is less important than the joy and togetherness of the experience,” Botana said. “In this hardest of years, I am looking forward to sharing similar joyful experiences this June with our resilient students and the Portland community.”

For the first time in years, Bonny Eagle High School will hold its graduation on the field at the school in Standish instead of an arena in Portland. On June 11, roughly 300 students will graduate from the state’s fourth-largest high school on June 11 and school staff members expect 1,200 to 1,500 people will be at the ceremony.

Last year, the school held a personalized individual ceremony for each graduate and up to 15 guests where the staff talked about the student’s accomplishments and presented their diploma.

Principal Gregory Applestein said the school sent two surveys to students and parents to gauge their feelings on how and where to hold graduation this spring. The graduation planning committee considered both indoor and outdoor options – including two smaller ceremonies at the Cross Insurance Arena – but the clear message from students is that they wanted one ceremony together.

“There has been an energy and enthusiasm to have the entire class together. Many people really, really wanted to be together as a whole,” Applestein said. “We’re all looking forward to getting behind them for that graduation and celebrating them.”

PLANS IN YORK COUNTY

In York County, many schools are planning outdoor ceremonies that will look similar to past events.

In Biddeford, the graduation ceremony for 160 students will return to the traditional venue at Waterhouse Field on June 4. Last year, the graduating seniors were celebrated during a drive-in ceremony at the Saco Drive-In. Biddeford school officials have developed a detailed plan for a ceremony with 896 seats based on social distancing requirements that are currently in place.

Biddeford’s plan doesn’t allow graduates and their families to gather for photos on the field, but the school is planning to provide photos taken by professional photographers to families.

In Saco, Thornton Academy will use its Dr. Paul S. Hill Stadium for a graduation that will look a lot like pre-pandemic ceremonies. Instead of using only half of the stadium seating for the audience, this year guests will be spread across both sets of bleachers and on the field, said Nick Tabor, assistant head of student affairs.

The school has also planned a senior day with fun activities and a modified senior assembly for the 350 students in the class.

“I think it’s important for kids to feel they got a real graduation,” Tabor said. “They’ve had to deal with a difficult senior year. We’re looking forward to sending them off on a positive note.”

John Suttie, the principal of Old Orchard Beach High School, spent part of a day last week measuring the bleachers at the school’s Regina Field, where a graduation ceremony for 65 students will be held on June 6, to see how many family pods could be marked off. Typically, graduation is held at the nearby Seaside Pavilion, but there isn’t enough space there for graduates and their guests.

“After last year and patching together a virtual ceremony for our kids, we feel great that the Class of 2021 is going to have the opportunity to have a traditional ceremony similar to graduates in the past,” Suttie said. “It’s a step toward normalcy and we’re thrilled for that.”

Old Orchard Beach High School senior Duffy Rose is happy that the school has decided to hold the graduation ceremony an the football field so her family can attend. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Duffy Rose, an Old Orchard Beach senior headed to the University of New England next year, shares Suttie’s enthusiasm for the school’s year-end plans. For much of the year, she worried that she wouldn’t be able to have a graduation ceremony at all.

“A few times throughout the year people would have to quarantine and we’d all have to go remote,” she said. “There were points where I was concerned that things would not get better by this time. You just had to hope for the best.”

Typically, seniors Old Orchard Beach go on a whitewater rafting trip together, but this year their trip will be replaced with a trip to a local campground to do a ropes course and other activities. Suttie said that event is planned for after graduation to lessen student exposure right before graduation.

In place of a prom, the school is hosting a senior celebration where students will get dressed up, have dinner together and watch a comedy performance. Even though it’s only open to seniors and their guests from within the school cohort, Rose said she is looking forward to spending an evening with her friends and finally wearing the dress she had hoped to wear to prom last year.

“I’m really happy we’re getting to have some of these events. The seniors last year didn’t get to experience those things,” she said. “Even if it’s not like past years, it’s definitely something and I’m excited for it.”

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