Graduation in a time of pandemic

The senior class considers what an alternative ceremony might look like.

The Tabernacle remains closed, as seniors grapple to find an alternative way to celebrate their graduation. — Molly Baldino

The graduating class of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) met with elected class officers and faculty advisors via Zoom last Tuesday to consider alternate plans for the 2020 graduation ceremony. The proposed alternatives currently include postponing the graduation date by having a Tabernacle ceremony at a later date in the summer, and a drive-in style ceremony with a multi-town parade that allows for community participation.

During the class meeting, teachers and class officers separated the 80 participating seniors into ‘breakout rooms’ as a way to elicit insight and opinions from as many people as possible. No decision can be made until the towns decide what will be acceptable this summer, so the school is taking preliminary measures to plan for various scenarios ahead of time.

The consensus among all was a preference to convene at a later date for a traditional Tabernacle graduation, assuming that would be before the first senior left for college in August. Students do recognize the necessary constraints being placed on this year’s ceremony in light of the pandemic that could make a traditional ceremony impossible until the fall, however, or even later.

School adjustment counselor and class advisor Matt Malowski explained that it’s impractical to harbor hope for a traditional Tabernacle graduation ceremony given the state’s current social distancing restrictions. “To be totally transparent, not pessimistic, we just don’t see that happening,” he said. “So we really have to do our due diligence and plan for Plan B. If we can’t do the normal Tabernacle ceremony, well then what?”

One of the more prominent and plausible alternatives at this time, Mr. Malowski explained, is a drive-in graduation ceremony. “You stay in your cars,” he said. “You can listen to the ceremony and the commencement speeches and all of those things through your car radio. There will be a big LED screen up, like at a concert. The speeches would still be given, the chorus and songs would still be sung. You guys would still walk up on the stage, or wherever, to get your actual diploma. But just some of those things are going to have to be modified because of social distancing.”

While many believe the drive-in could be an interesting way to create an original and interactive ceremony while still following social distancing guidelines, some expressed concern about where and how that many cars of students, family, and friends could be accommodated. One site consideration is the Agricultural Hall (Ag Hall) in West Tisbury, which is made up of over 20 acres of land.

After the annual August fair was recently cancelled due to COVID-19, Brian Athearn, the president of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, reached out to offer use of the land for graduation. Mr. Malowski said,“[Mr. Athearn] is willing to go to the selectmen for this class to be able to host [graduation] at the Ag Hall. Obviously there are a lot of hoops to jump through, but he and their executive director are going to to see if they can be allowed to do something that falls within the social distancing guidelines.”

A meeting is scheduled for this coming week with West Tisbury selectmen to discuss the possibility of holding a drive-in graduation at the Ag Hall.

Students also discussed the idea of integrating a multi-town parade so that graduation could be open to the public and incorporate the Island community support that is traditionally present on the day. “The parade would not be to replace graduation,” Mr. Malowski said. “It would be in addition to the ceremony.”

Mr. Malowski added that students may have to get politically active in order to move forward with ceremony planning. “We are going to have to lobby for some allowances here,” he said. “You should wrap your heads around that, about how you guys want to frame [your proposals] with [Island] politicians.”

In addition to graduation planning, students debated how to spend a surplus of money in the senior class account that was previously allocated to the various traditions such as the Senior Ball, Senior Brunch, and a cancelled class trip. One of the most popular ideas was to purchase apparel for the class, such as customized hoodies or sweatshirts. Other ideas included donating to a cause, paying for yearbooks, or saving the money for the 20-year reunion.

Multiple students were also in favor of leaving something commemorative behind at either MVRHS or the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital for the greater Island community. Senior Morgan Estrella said, “We could do something, give something, to the school to leave our mark behind.”

Senior Ruby Suman said, “We could start a fund to help people who have been suffering really deeply.”

School adjustment counselor Amy Lilavois, who is also a class advisor for the class of 2020, has been working with a dedicated group of parents to lay groundwork for ceremony alternatives. All parents, she said, have been incredibly supportive and are putting the students first in wanting to consider what students want to see happen. “It’s clearly upsetting for parents who have their first and/or only child graduating this year,” Ms. Lilavois said, “but they are willing to sacrifice their own visions for what their students want.”

When asked during the meeting about how a final decision on graduation will be made, Ms. Lilavois highlighted that students’ opinions mattered above all. “We’re not going to please everybody, so we are going to put out a survey to see what the majority wants, because that is the most feasible,” she said. “Once we have that Plan B, the most important thing is to hear your voices. You are the ones graduating.”