The 1,444 seniors in Bend-La Pine Schools’ five high schools will have graduation ceremonies in June, but all of them will be pre-recorded productions instead of the traditional gatherings at the Deschutes County Fair & Expo Center.
Central Oregon’s largest school district told families in an email Thursday that its high school seniors will be honored in video ceremonies broadcast on Central Oregon Daily and streamed on Bend-La Pine’s Facebook page. Instead of walking across a stage to receive a diploma, seniors are being encouraged to celebrate at home.
The decision is in line with orders from Gov. Kate Brown, who asked school districts earlier this month to either postpone graduation ceremonies or conduct them remotely, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Each video ceremony will feature pre-recorded speeches, a moment honoring each graduate and any other graduation traditions a school might have, according to the email announcement, signed by Superintendent Shay Mikalson. Each school will also send graduating seniors a package that includes a cap and gown, honor cords, diplomas, personalized notes and other graduation-related items.
Mikalson asked seniors to take photographs and videos of themselves in their caps and gowns, and some might appear in the pre-recorded ceremonies.
“You deserve graduation celebrations and traditions ... and I believe we can create some new memories together on your graduation day,” Mikalson wrote. “I hope that these virtual, televised ceremonies can give you something to look forward to, and a chance to dress up and celebrate at home, and to have some fun on your graduation day.”
The school district decided to not have ceremonies later in the summer, due to concerns that many students will leave town and because Oregon’s social distancing policies may not be lifted by the summer, Mikalson told families.
Mikalson did not respond Friday to The Bulletin’s request for comment.
Local seniors and parents of seniors had varied reactions to the virtual ceremonies.
Gianna Dispenza, a 17-year-old senior at Summit High School, started an online petition that urged Bend-La Pine to come up with a more creative way of celebrating high school graduates.
“I feel like Bend-La Pine took the easy way out,” Dispenza told The Bulletin. “We went to school for (12) years, and I feel like we deserve something better than receiving our diplomas in the mail and saying goodbye over video.”
As of Friday afternoon, Dispenza’s petition was signed by 127 people. A few comments agreed with her distaste for virtual celebrations:
“Anything but virtual.”
“We deserve better.”
“We should postpone graduation until August.”
Ella Bakker, an 18-year-old senior at Bend High School, said she appreciates the effort that Bend-La Pine staff put into having some sort of celebration for seniors during the pandemic.
But she has little interest in participating in, or even watching, her virtual graduation ceremony.
“I don’t think it fulfills the experience that we (would’ve) had, if we’re just sitting in our living room,” Bakker said. “It honestly sounds like it’ll be a little boring.”
Not having a proper ceremony is especially rough for Bakker, as she plans to leave Bend for the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Saying farewell to most of her high school friends before she flies to Europe will be difficult because there’s no in-person graduation ceremony, she said.
Phia Smith, a 17-year-old senior at Summit High School, said a virtual graduation was the most realistic solution, even if it’s not perfect.
“At this point, I’ve accepted it,” she said. “It is what it is.”
Smith and her neighbor, another graduating Summit senior, plan to hold their own small-scale graduation walk in the alley between their homes, wearing caps and gowns, she said.
“It’ll be our fairgrounds,” Smith said.
Aaron Flack said his daughter, La Pine High School senior Olivia Flack, was particularly distraught about not having a traditional graduation because she is the valedictorian. But he said the virtual ceremony is Bend-La Pine’s best option during a pandemic.
“She’s worked very, very hard for this moment, so that’s tough for her,” said Flack, who is also La Pine High School’s athletic director. “But this is just a small piece of her life, and I said she’s going to do bigger and better things.”
Susan Collins — a mother of twin daughters graduating from Summit High School, Lily and Pilar Carson — said she was glad there would be some sort of celebration for seniors. Having an online ceremony would make it easier for far-away relatives in places like Michigan and Florida to join in, she added.
Katie Legace, executive director of high schools for Bend-La Pine, said she sympathizes with upset seniors, but the school district’s hands were tied due to the pandemic. She encouraged anyone who has feedback about the upcoming virtual graduations to fill out an online survey, which was sent to all seniors and their families in Mikalson’s email.
“It’s not ideal, but we know it’s an important event, (and) we’re doing the best that we can to make sure it’s special for each of our graduates,” Legace said.