JEFFERSON — Entering their senior year, the Class of 2020 had visions of a traditional commencement ceremony in the school auditorium, attended by distant family members and throngs of friends.
With coronavirus-forced school building closures running through the end of June and likelihood of extended limitations on gatherings beyond that date, that possibility, once so secure, is all but a dream.
Not to move forward with a Plan B at this time would be irresponsible, said Jefferson High School principal Steve Dinkel.
In cooperation with associate principal Rick Lehman, district administrators and other planners, Dinkel said, he has worked to scope out every possibility for a live ceremony.
However, with no clear path available to an in-person graduation ceremony this summer — whether inside, on the football field or at the Jefferson Outdoor drive-in theater — district officials have begun preparing for an online graduation ceremony to take place on the original graduation date of Sunday, June 7.
“It’s enormous,” Dinkel said. “I really feel for our families and our students.”
He said spring is such a special time of year, especially for the seniors who are seeing the culmination of all of their years of schooling.
“Normally, we’d be having our musical, athletics, all of our awards and scholarships, and, of course, graduation,” Dinkel said. “I feel terrible for our seniors who are going to miss out on all of these annual rites of passage.”
While the district cannot remove the dark cloud of the global COVID-19 pandemic that is raining on everyone’s lives right now, school officials have been working hard to assure that they do give the graduating seniors the recognition they deserve, and that includes a commencement ceremony, in whatever format is possible.
“With so much uncertainty about what the near future holds, we decided we needed to move ahead with this virtual option,” Dinkel said.
Earlier this week, the district announced that it had entered into a partnership with Herff Jones and its technology partners StageClip and MarchingOrder, to host a virtual commencement for the senior Class of 2020.
“These are leaders in the field in hosting this type of event,” Dinkel said. “They do it across the country for colleges and universities.”
The event will take place at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 7, and families and supporters can tune in remotely wherever they are located.
Jefferson High School is working in conjunction with members of the Rock Valley Conference schools and other schools throughout southern Wisconsin to make this recognition ceremony a reality, Dinkel said.
“We completely understand nothing can replace an in-person graduation ceremony, and dependent upon state and national mandates being lifted, we will continue to review additional ceremonial recognition for the Class of 2020 in the future,” the principal said.
“In the meantime, we still want to celebrate and honor the accomplishments of our senior class in a timely manner,” he said.
The principal noted that Herff Jones has partnered with national leaders in the industry to provide a proven, easy-to-use platform for virtual ceremonies.
The high school also will provide each graduate with his or her own personalized content to share on social media with family and friends using the hashtags #GradAWAYtion and #MoveTheTassel.
“We have gotten ahead of the curve on this opportunity and will be out front of thousands of high schools in the nation,” Dinkel said.
However, he emphasized that to make this happen, the district must follow a non-negotiable timeline to assure the virtual graduation can be produced on time.
Students will be able to upload two items, the first a photo of themselves in their cap and gown and the second a short videoclip in which they can recognize and thank family members or give other ceremony-appropriate commentary.
By May 10, the high school will submit the names of the pending graduates to the company. By May 17, students must have their videos, slides and name enunciations turned in.
The regular student graduation speakers — including Valedictorian Anna Kallsen, Salutatorian Ian Sande and Class President Mya Magner — will be preparing their own submissions.
In addition, the high school previously had selected as its 2020 commencement speaker Nate Fischer, an alumnus of Jefferson High School who graduated in 1995 and has been living in Hong Kong. Organizers hope that Fischer still will be able to contribute his speech remotely.
Finally, the high school also hopes to have a speech from foreign-exchange student Francesca Volpe, who was sent home to Italy in March after AFS cut off exchange visits early due to the global pandemic.
Of course, Dinkel will play a role in the ceremony as high school principal, as will School District of Jefferson Superintendent Mark Rollefson.
“I want everyone to know the significance of a graduation ceremony as a ceremonial rite of passage is not taken lightly,” Dinkel said. “We also know this is not how any of us envisioned how the end of the year might look, nor is this the way we wish to send off our seniors who have been the spirit of our high school and district as the Class of 2020.”
Dinkel said that the virtual graduation ceremony is one way the district can honor and respect its graduating class during this very difficult and restrictive time in history.
Dinkel said he hopes the online graduation is not the only ceremony that the Jefferson High School seniors will experience.
“But to think that we can bring 1,100 people together in a single audience in June or even July this year, that’s just not realistic right now,” Dinkel said.
“If things miraculously change, yes, of course, we will want to do a live ceremony, but this is the option open to us right now,” the principal said.
He said the district will be acting in accordance with the latest recommendations from the National Center for Disease Control, the State of Wisconsin and the Jefferson County Health Department.
“If another solution is out there, we will take it,” the principal said.
Dinkel explained that all of the pieces that the school, students and speakers send in will be assembled into a whole that resembles a traditional graduation ceremony.
“This is a great ‘first step’ to honor our seniors,” Dinkel said.
In the meantime, with traditional avenues closed, Jefferson High School has stepped up to honor its seniors in various ways, including featuring every single graduate, his or her club affiliations and future school and career plans, on Facebook.
In addition, the school district will have banners up in Jefferson congratulating the Class of 2020, featuring photos of all of the seniors.
“We are trying to do what we can,” Dinkel said. “We really do care about our students. By no way is this how we envisioned sending off our seniors.”
Addressing the pending graduates in his letter earlier this week, Dinkel said, “You will join a nation of youth who will graduate under the shadow of a global pandemic. But I know you are stronger for it,” he said. “You will be more resilient for it, and my hope is that you will be more compassionate because of it.”