High school graduations typically follow a pretty familiar script: Graduates sitting side by side in caps and gowns, each one getting a handshake from the principal as they receive their diploma.
But in this unprecedented year, high schools across New Hampshire have had to go back to the drawing board to figure out what they can pull off that’s both safe and celebratory.
At Salem High School, that’s meant an instructional video, a ramp and some plexiglass. In a video posted by school leaders on the Salem High website, staff members show each step of their pandemic graduation plan. Families will drive their kid up to the front of the high school. Graduates will get out, stand in a short, socially distanced line, grab their diploma, and then get back into their family’s vehicle.
With concerns over the coronavirus shaking up usual graduation routines, districts have had to put in lots of work to figure out how they can provide some shred of normalcy for their kids, while not risking the spread of illness.
For Concord High School administrators, this meant logging a lot of hours on Memorial Field - making absolutely certain there was room to social distance. Interim Superintendent Frank Bass said he was out there with a measuring tape.
They’ve decided to split the Concord graduating class into three groups and will hold three separate ceremonies in one day (that means the valedictorian, and other assigned speakers, will speak three times).
The district has plotted it out so that graduate will each sit with eight feet of space on all sides. Bass said throughout the planning, they’ve been in constant talks with the police department to make sure they’re following pandemic protocols.
“We wanted the chief to feel if anyone were to call and say, ‘Hey, I can't believe you're allowing in this graduation,’ he's in a position to say, ‘No, I've covered that thing six ways to Sunday, and I'm very comfortable with what these folks have done to ensure that safe distancing is a premium and that no one is being put in jeopardy situation,’ ” Bass said.
The Concord graduation plan has actually made seniors at another school kind of jealous. Dover High School is one of many this year that’s pulling together a virtual graduation, something many Dover seniors said they didn’t want.
Student body president Alex Lomartire said he had visualized his graduation day - he’d watched his older sister walk across the stage - and he wanted to do some of the traditions in person: like “the whole tassel thing.”
“I’m gonna be doing it by myself and not with my classmates, and that’s pretty disappointing,” he said.
Lomartire and other class officers started a petition to try to change school leaders’ minds. They even drafted alternate in-person graduation plans for the school board. But the administration felt they couldn’t pull it off safely.
“It's just been such a process of trying to get this graduation that, you know, it doesn't have the same feeling,” Lomartire said. “We’re kind of just looking for it to be over.”
Dover High School Principal Peter Driscoll said he understands the kids’ disappointment; he wanted everyone to be together, too. But he said if they allowed everyone to be together, how could he stop people from posing for pictures? From getting too close?
Instead, Dover seniors booked time slots to be filmed, one by one, crossing the stage, and picking up their diplomas in a freezer bag. A video of the graduation will air on local cable.
There are schools, like Laconia High School, that are still figuring out their plans, while other schools like Timberlane are waiting until July in hopes that the virus will slow its spread.
But without a doubt, there is one pandemic graduation plan in New Hampshire that has been getting most of the attention: Kennett High School in North Conway. Seniors there will take chairlifts to the top of nearby Cranmore Mountain to get their diplomas.
Kennett Principal Kevin Carpenter is almost giddy over this idea. He said graduates who opt to take a ride up will be able to see Mount Washington. They’ll even get a photo op at the top, diploma in hand.
Carpenter is glad his team figured out such a unique ending to high school, and he said the pandemic has forced all high schools to get creative.
“It's very easy in this time right now to blame everything on the coronavirus, and this Covid outbreak,” he said. “But if you work really hard, you can still find creative ways to accomplish a lot of things.”
Carpenter said that’s what the class of 2020 is full of: Creative thinkers and hard workers.