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District details graduation plans

Every year in June, high school seniors across the country look forward to graduation, coming together with their classmates one last time to celebrate an important milestone - a passage into adulthood. They walk across the stage one at time, accepting their hard-earned diplomas. Together, they throw their caps in the air to acknowledge the end of a 13-year journey.

This year, due to COVID-19, the Class of 2020 will likely miss out on that experience, in addition to other special senior events such as award ceremonies, prom and graduation parties.

Whitehall-Coplay School District, like so many others, had to make the difficult decision to host graduation and other events virtually, as Lehigh County remains under a stay-at-home order per Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf. Even when the county moves to the yellow stage, large gatherings will still not be permitted.

“Our decisions will always be based on the safety and security of our students. We value that in every way, and, ultimately right now, the guidance that we received from the governor is that graduations while you’re in a red county are to be virtual,” Whitehall High School Principal Nathan Davidson said.

Davidson and his fellow school administrators opted to put their efforts into creating a virtual graduation ceremony that will honor the senior class, keeping it as close to a traditional graduation as possible. He got input from groups of seniors, including senior class representatives and members of Zephyr Nation, Student Council and Student Focus, a principal’s council group.

He is still hoping the district will be able to host a live event - if things change over the summer. Stabler Arena, where graduation is normally held, is closed through July, though Davidson said the venue is not the issue.

“As things change over the summer, then we would look at the lay of the land and see what we could do, whether it be the kids come to the school and individually walk across a stage or something like that or a live in-person event. We still hold out hope for that,” Davidson said.

WHS’ graduation will still occur on the originally scheduled date of June 4. WCSD reached out to local cable companies Service Electric and RCN to see if they would be able to air the graduation live, so it could reach more people in the community. They agreed to help the district at no cost.

The graduation will air 7 p.m. on RCN and Service Electric, and a link will go live on the district’s website, whitehallcoplay.org, at the same time. The ceremony will also appear on YouTube. In the hour leading up to it, a video slideshow can be viewed exclusively on the website and will include 30-45 minutes of videos, teacher testimonials, student memories and pictures of events taken throughout the school year.

Graduation is being recorded ahead of time, and, similar to the traditional format, WCSD Superintendent Dr. Lorie Hackett will open the ceremony. Davidson will give a speech as well.

The valedictorian, salutatorian and class president will also address their fellow graduates. The members of the Class of 1970, who graduated 50 years ago, will be recognized, along with the high school’s retirees.

“We will end with a slideshow essentially of every single graduate with their name being read, similar to what we would do in a live event - except ultimately, it won’t be the kids walking across the stage. It will be a slide across the screen, which I certainly recognize will be very different for parents,” Davidson said.

In addition, there will be chorale and band performances, done ahead of time through Zoom, and well wishes and words of advice from staff members.

Some parents of the Class of 2020 are not happy about the district’s decision to host graduation virtually. A now-closed petition started on Change.org titled “Postpone, not cancel Whitehall High School’s Graduation” has 1,236 supporters.

“There’s a lot of raw emotion. People are upset. People have the expectation that graduation happens traditionally as it always has. I understand that. I know that other school districts are doing different things,” Davidson said in response to the petition.

“I understand parents’ frustration. I’m certainly disappointed in the fact that we have to host graduation in this manner,” he added.

Davidson feels if the perimeters change during the summer, the district is open to planning an event, but he did not want to schedule a date in June, July or August only to potentially need to postpone it again.

“We felt it was very important for us and for our students to have that closure - to be able to say they’re graduates, to be able to go on to the next steps of their lives that they have set up,” Davidson said.

Davidson also said there are graduates who would not be able to attend a ceremony if it was held too late in the summer, such as those going into the military or attending college summer sessions. In meetings with the senior groups giving their input to these decisions, he was told by August, they’ll probably have moved on.

Davidson became the WHS principal in September 2016, the same time the Class of 2020 were freshmen, making them the first class he has been with through all four years. Davidson mentioned graduation is one of his favorite days of the year.

“I know what they’re made of, and I know the caliber of their character. I know that it is a fantastic group of kids,” he said. “I’m fully confident in them going out into the community and into the world and being successful,” he said.

Davidson said WHS staff are upset they won’t get to say goodbye to the students they have grown close to over the past four years. Throughout this week, to honor the seniors, teachers will be showing their love for the Class of 2020 by putting special graduation yard signs outside of seniors’ homes.

Still being held, though virtually, the senior awards night, to be held May 27, and athletic awards night, to be held May 29, will take place 7 p.m. and will be viewable through a link on the district website, as well as on YouTube. This link will be sent in an email to the seniors’ parents.

Senior awards night will feature approximately 60 award winners. The Class of 1970 will be presenting scholarships. Thousands of dollars in academic and other scholarships will be awarded as well. Recipients will be recognized in a slideshow, with one slide displaying the award and its purpose and another with students’ photographs and a quote from a teacher that speaks to the character of the award winners and the reason they were chosen.

The athletic awards night will be conducted in a similar fashion.

Prom is still scheduled for June 26 at Holiday Inn in Fogelsville, though that could change depending on whether large gatherings are permissible in Lehigh County by that point. Davidson said in the case of a postponement, it is possible WHS could host a senior-only event on campus in July or August, depending on when restrictions ease.

If prom cannot be held, Davidson spoke with seniors about the possibility of hosting an event during Homecoming or Thanksgiving break in the fall.

“Their words to us were that they would probably be beyond high school by that point, but we’ll see. We’ll hold out hope until then,” he said.

Caps and gowns, along with a small gift for each senior, will be available for pickup at WHS May 26-29. There will be a set time for seniors to get their belongings and return items that belong to the school. Students will be scheduled to come in very small groups, and select staff members will gather items from lockers and have them ready for pickup. Students and parents will not be able to go in and out of the building.

Students waiting for yearbooks will likely be able to pick theirs up near the end of June, and parents will be notified once a date is set. Production of the yearbooks was delayed by nearly two months due to COVID-19 restrictions.

If permissible, Davidson is hoping they can hold a senior day, where students could pick up yearbooks and get them signed by classmates.

Davidson feels, although this senior class has been asked to sacrifice a lot, they are ready for the future, even though the year was cut short. Whether COVID-19 is eradicated quickly or whether it goes on for quite a while, he said this will become part of our collective history.

“This will be a moment that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives and, unfortunately, under circumstances that we don’t normally have to go through. But they’re ready for the next step in their lives,” Davidson said. “We’re happy for them, we’re proud of them, and we look forward to seeing them again soon.”