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Amid crisis, class of 2020 struggles to keep semblance of graduation traditions

Detroit Free Press logo Detroit Free Press 6/1/2020 Bill Laitner, Detroit Free Press
a group of police officers riding on the back of a truck: Pontiac Notre Dame Prep senior Katie Topoleski celebrates her graduation in a parade of students honking their horns as teachers waved to them and handed out tee-shirts and carnations on May 17, 2020 -- one of countless efforts by schools to recognize seniors in safe ways during the COVID crisis. © Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press Pontiac Notre Dame Prep senior Katie Topoleski celebrates her graduation in a parade of students honking their horns as teachers waved to them and handed out tee-shirts and carnations on May 17, 2020 -- one of countless efforts by schools to recognize seniors in safe ways during the COVID crisis.

Senior year ... zapped! 

At high schools across Michigan and the nation, the pandemic has zapped the class of 2020, sweeping away milestones that make senior year special.

Athletes missed crowning seasons, musicians their best concerts. Brainiacs lost honors assembly, pranksters had to skip senior skip day. Every senior missed prom, pep rallies and spirit weeks — all zapped since Michigan schools closed on March 16.

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Now, hoping to give seniors at least a few graduation memories, high schools are planning online commencements and other events that maintain social distancing. 

The goal? 

To preserve a semblance of tradition, said Charlie Hollerith, principal of Bloomfield Hills High School.

“It is very tough – all the annual traditions that you look forward to, pretty much gone,” Hollerith said. He paid tribute to this class of teens, who saw a microbe far smaller than a pinhead sweep away years of planning and dreaming.

“These seniors made the ultimate sacrifice of not having these events, in order to keep the rest of us safe. The class of 2020 will be remembered for that. So, we’ve tried to come up with creative ideas to honor them,” Hollerith said.

His seniors will get less than a proud strut across a stage to accept diplomas, yet considerably more than merely a virtual commencement viewed on home computers. Last week, teachers delivered caps and gowns to all 385 seniors. That was after Hollerith’s secretary, Laurie Mezey, packaged them in her Bloomfield Township garage.

"The school was locked up, so we had to have them delivered somewhere," Mezey said, as she added to the packages each senior's own honor cords, tassels and other tokens of achievement.

The plan is for seniors to ride in cars with family members to the high school at 1 p.m. on June 7, the time and date planned for commencement since last year — except this year, they’ll stay in their cars, tune radios to the school’s own station (88.1 FM WBFH), hear their names announced by school counselors, and — tah dah — each will see his or her senior photo projected one at a time on huge jumbotron video screens.

a person sitting at a table: Working in her garage on May 18, 2020, Laurie Mezey prepares hundreds of cap-and-gown packets for Bloomfield Hills high school seniors virtual graduation, set for June 7. © Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press Working in her garage on May 18, 2020, Laurie Mezey prepares hundreds of cap-and-gown packets for Bloomfield Hills high school seniors virtual graduation, set for June 7.

“The unique thing is, we’re able to include a lot of the elements of our traditional graduation, including student speeches and individual recognition of all the members of the senior class,” Hollerith said.

“We’re putting together a video of congratulatory remarks by famous previous alumni and dignitaries,” to include WXYZ television news reporter Heather Catallo, Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown, and Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein, he said. As for music, the jumbotrons will have that too.

More: You're graduating in a pandemic. What's next?

More: Here's what Michigan public schools might look like this fall. It's not great.

The choir will sing the national anthem, prerecorded on a Zoom call.

“I suppose if Saturday Night Live can use Zoom, why can’t the Bloomfield Hills High School choir?” Hollerith said.

Senior Stacey Hirsch, 18, of West Bloomfield, who grew up in the district’s schools since kindergarten, watched a few years ago as an older sister graduated. Hirsch said she long anticipated savoring that moment for herself. 

“I’m sad that I don’t get the normal graduation that I always thought I was going to have. But at the same time the administration is doing the best they can to give us some sort of normalcy,” Hirsch said. 

Another senior – 17-year-old Mari Lynn, also of West Bloomfield — said she’s excited at the prospect of watching the jumbotron’s display of cameos, with well wishes from “people who went to our school or just local celebrities.” '

Lynn said she’s hoping to hear snippets from WDIV-Channel 4 meteorologist Paul Gross, state Rep. Mari Manoogian, pop singer and 2019 Bloomfield Hills High School grad Sofi K, and “my middle school teacher Mr. Honeyman, who was my dad’s teacher and he was my middle-school teacher…definitely a very influential figure to everyone in my grade.”

After 35 years as a teacher in the Bloomfield Hills School District, language arts teacher Mark Honeyman is set to retire in June, according to the district’s web site.

Teens in grief

Other schools have more modest plans for paying heed to tradition. But all such efforts can be helpful to teens who are "grieving for what they've missed," said Lauren Mangus, a former school psychologist in Port Huron, Warren and Bloomfield Hills.

While most adults cling to the hope that their lives will soon return to normal, or nearly normal, graduating seniors can never relive this year to make up for what they missed, said Mangus, now an assistant professor in the College of Education at Wayne State University.

"And schools are such an important place for fostering a sense of belonging. Kids are truly missing that now," Mangus said.

Parents can recognize that and encourage their seniors to participate in virtual commencements and socially distant gatherings, maybe with "what I call a car-rade — a car parade," she said.

Seniors at Pontiac Notre Dame Prep did just that on May 17, honking their car horns in a caravan led by three fire trucks and a police car.

"It was quite a spectacle," said school spokesman Mike Kelly.

On the opposite side of metro Detroit from Bloomfield Hills and Pontiac are Grosse Pointe South High and, a few miles away, Grosse Pointe North High.

Like Bloomfield Hills and many others, both high schools in the Grosse Pointe district have planned their graduations to occur at the long-scheduled dates and times, Superintendent Gary Niehaus said.

First, on Tuesday, the schools will hold Spirit Wear, a day when seniors pose in their class T-shirts, share photos online and add notes on “your next step, whether that’s work, college or military,” according to an email about the district’s plans.

The email spells out the following:

Then on Wednesday, North High will hold its “Honor Drive and Virtual Graduation” for 360 seniors, followed by South High doing the same for its 392 graduates on Thursday. Seniors will drive onto the schools’ campuses in passenger cars – “no campers or RVs” – and receive their official diplomas. Seniors will be allowed to exit their vehicles and pick a site outside the school for a formal portrait in cap and gown, with social distancing maintained at all times.

“The campus remains closed to families for health and safety. . . Links will be distributed so that your family and friends across the globe can watch.” At 6:30 p.m. each day, the district will launch virtual commencement ceremonies, to include student speeches and the reading of each grad’s name as his or her photo is shown.

No all-night party

Grosse Pointe South High School senior Nate Bingaman said having a story-book commencement was never his dream. And Bingaman said he happily gave up his senior sports season of lacrosse to work one night a week and on weekends at Grosse Pointe's Moosejaw store, selling outdoor gear.

But there's one thing he said he'd really miss.

a close up of a piece of paper: Photo shows engraved commencement invitation for graduates of Grosse Pointe South High School. © Bill Laitner Photo shows engraved commencement invitation for graduates of Grosse Pointe South High School.

"South has a tradition of an all-night party. All of the seniors just hang out all night inside the school," said Bingaman, 18, of Grosse Pointe Farms.

There's no do-over for that. Nor for the sports season of a friend who was all-state in track last year.

"He's just devastated," Bingaman said.

Another crest-fallen athlete is baseball star Dima Machovec, a four-year varsity player at Huron Valley Lutheran High School in Westland. Machovec was so upset about losing his senior year of play that he started an online petition. Machovec's petition, at Change.org, implores high-school sports officials to hold a two-week baseball season this summer.

Although the petition drew nearly 36,000 signatures as of Friday, it went nowhere with the Michigan High School Athletic Association. No officially sanctioned high-school games can take place, although schools can request a waiver of the usual rule against donning school uniforms for summer play, said John Johnson, broadcast director for the association.

The waivers let schools hold special sports events this summer, when "they might want to honor their seniors by letting them suit up one last time — perhaps against a neighboring school," Johnson said in an email. But with schools across Michigan locked up tight and school practice fields closed, it seems unlikely that any games could take place before the next official high-school sports season starts in early August.

Downriver’s Lincoln Park High School is one of the few anywhere whose graduates will walk across the school stage — the same stage where graduations always take place — and have their diplomas handed to them. But not by Principal Dan Mercer.

“They’ll get this from a family member. We’re putting kids in every three minutes, getting them across the stage and doing a photo op,” Mercer said. Seniors can bring as many as four adults to watch, Mercer said.

“We’ll shuffle the adults in one side of the auditorium and out the other side,” he said, a process that will take 14 hours over two successive days, June 8 and 9. 

“We’re doing this through a trauma-informed lens," Mercer said. "These kids have missed a lot. We want them to take away something to celebrate."

The Lincoln Park High class of 2020 had another unique celebration on the night of May 20. They gathered in cars outside the high school’s athletic stadium for 20 minutes and 20 seconds — get it? With the stadium lights on ultra-bright, the crowd in their cars heard speeches, music and cheers through the stadium’s PA system.

"We really had an amazing turnout for that," Mercer said.

The Detroit public schools has postponed its high-school graduation ceremonies —possibly to as late as December, Superintendent Nikolai Vitta told the Detroit News in early April.

For those saying goodbye to Berkley High School in Oakland County's Woodward corridor, graduation will be at the long-planned time and date — 7:30 p.m. on Thursday — but commencement will take place not on a stage but on the district's Facebook page.

"We're keeping as many elements as possible — we will just be filming them," district spokeswoman Jessica Stilger said. Video clips are being assembled by students and staff for broadcast in a video that might last two hours, Stilger said.

People can view it at any time. But the district's goal is for everyone to do so at once, in a virtual "watch party," she said. 

 After viewing speeches, after seeing numerous classmates and perhaps themselves appear in 30-second video clips submitted for the official "senior video," and after hearing each student's name announced and photo displayed, the audience will reach a special moment, one that's a quirky highlight of just about every commencement.

"The student body president will say, 'All right, Class of 2020 let's move our tassels'. . and they'll move them from the left to the right," signifying that moment of commencing life after high school, Stilger said.  

Commencing life, but doing so amid the uncertainty an unprecedented public-health crisis. Will their colleges be open this fall? Will employers be hiring? Will the military close its doors? And will illness still be stalking the nation?

Those questions can wait. For now, it's enough for the Class of 2020 to graduate with as much pride as any other, Stilger said, adding:

"Hopefully, our seniors will feel loved that day."

Contact: blaitnerf@freepress.com

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Amid crisis, class of 2020 struggles to keep semblance of graduation traditions

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