VASD Graduation Class of 2019

Graduates toss their caps in the air during the Verona Area High School graduation ceremony on Sunday, June 9, at Epic.

Verona Area High School staff are still hoping they can hold in-person graduating ceremonies for the Class of 2020, but they plan to ask students and families about it first.

Principal Pam Hammen told the school board at its Monday, April 20, meeting the last week of July is the latest possible date graduation could be held.

Board members Deborah Biddle and Carolyn Jahnke said while it isn’t likely any option will work for all of its more than 400 graduating seniors, it would be better to ask students and families what they would prefer.

“I just think it would be valuable to have their input in it; it may make them feel a little bit better to know their thoughts around graduation should proceed, or could proceed, is valued,” Biddle said.

Doing an in-person graduation the weekend school ends is impossible for the district because of restrictions put in place by the state to limit the spread of COVID-19. Construction throughout the district in preparation for the opening of its new high school led the district to move up the end of the school year to May 29, three weeks earlier than usual.

But with Gov. Tony Evers and state Department of Health Services secretary-designee Andrea Palm extending the “Safer at Home” order until at least May 26 to try to slow the spread of COVID-19, keeping the original graduation ceremony with thousands expected in attendance four days later on May 30 is not an option, Hammen said.

“Really, we were left with two options,” she said. “I think that our families and students really appreciate and enjoy having a face-to-face graduation ceremony, if at all possible.”

Other school districts in Dane County have changed their ceremonies because of COVID-19. Middleton-Cross Plains School District will attempt to schedule its ceremony for late July, and Madison Metropolitan School District canceled its in-person ceremonies, many of which are held at the Kohl Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which has closed its campus to essential personnel only.

Hammen suggested Saturday, July 25, as a possible date, noting that some graduated seniors leave for their post-secondary institutions in the beginning of August because of extracurricular groups they’re involved in, she said.

For others, that option still might be too late, Hammen admitted. Some students will be leaving after the school year is over to start basic training in the U.S. Armed Forces or are moving out of the area.

And there’s no guarantee that even if the district moves forward with in-person graduation ceremonies in late July, that Epic, which has been the host since 2008, will even allow the district to hold the event on its campus.

If that’s the case, Hammen said, administrators would look at holding it on the football field, with a rain date of Sunday, July 26.

As an alternative, Hammen floated the idea of a “virtual” graduation ceremony, where speeches from herself, Dean Gorrell and the Class of 2020 speakers would be filmed, and then photos would be shown of each graduating senior. Other board members suggested a drive-in graduation ceremony, in which students would physically attend in cars and listen on a radio frequency, much like a drive-in movie theater.

Forgoing any recognition at all didn’t seem like an option for Hammen or anyone on the board.

“I think we all agree that it’s really important to provide an opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate our seniors and their accomplishments,” she said. “I think that’s especially true this year because seniors have been disappointed; there were many things they were looking forward to that they haven’t been able to participate in.”

Regardless of when and how graduation ceremonies take place, Hammen asked the school board to certify the student’s diplomas prior to June 1 so that students who are going on to attend post-secondary institutions can still request a finalized version of their transcript. Usually, school board members announce that certification during graduation ceremonies.

Board member Kristina Navarro-Haffner brought up the drive-thru idea, saying social distancing would be maintained despite hundreds or thousands of people being in attendance.

“The idea I’m seeing with higher ed doing it that way is at least in a car, you don’t have to limit the numbers and worry that there’s just too much density of people in a small space,” she said.

Hammen said she had seen that style graduation ceremony on social media, but with the lack of an outdoor theater and a large class of graduating seniors, she wasn’t sure how that would work.

“I get it in theory, I just don’t know how that’s really engaging or memorable,” Hammen said.

Board member Meredith Stier Christensen thanked Hammen for working to come up with other options for a graduation ceremony to recognize students.

“This is such a tough time, for all of our students, and all of our staff, but for seniors especially, there’s so much loss,” she said. “A delayed date isn’t a certainty, but I do like the option of having it. This is just so hard all the way around.”

Email reporter Kimberly Wethal at kimberly.wethal@wcinet.com and follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wethal.