Due to Covid-19, high school graduates around the world are not able to celebrate their graduation as they imagined. Schools and students from Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, and the U.S. tried to make the most of it – with graduation ceremonies in drive-in movie theaters or football stadiums, virtual parties, and prom outfits in classrooms.
By Katharina Holzinger, Carina Irimia and Alina Lackerbauer
“Even though we can’t be in the stadium, I brought the stadium to you”, a female voice echoed through a megaphone from the side of the road across the front garden. A concert of horns almost drowned out the cheers of passing cars. “Congrats Alison, Class of 2020” graced a car, surrounded by yellow and white balloons. Another car honked, driving past a front yard at walking pace. In the yard, star-shaped balloons in blue and yellow were blowing in the wind. A girl in a black gown and with a graduation cap on her head was jumping up and down, waving both hands to the passing cars with a big smile. Next to her high heels, blue smoke rose from the grass. Shortly before, the musician Alicia Keys stated:
“Take whatever cap you have, whatever hat you have and throw it in the air, because you, my friends, you are graduates in the most powerful time to be coming of age,
and there is nothing and no one that can stop you from changing the world.”
These scenes are part of the video project “Dear class of 2020”, which was intended to enable high school graduates in the U.S. to celebrate their graduation with a virtual party. Germany has followed. Since July 15, there has been a website where celebrities give greetings to high school graduates and share their own photos from their school days – the project was initiated by the President of Germany Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Just like in the U.S. and Germany, students around the world were surprised by the outbreak of the coronavirus at the end of their school days. They were all looking forward to celebrating like many graduates before them. To certain traditions, to a reward for years of hard work at school, and the fitting end of a period of life. The schools are now trying to deal with the situation in different ways. Online ceremonies are always an option, but just like in the U.S. and Germany, students around the world were surprised by the outbreak of the coronavirus at the end of their school days. They were all looking forward to celebrating like many graduates before them. To certain traditions, to a reward for years of hard work at school, and the fitting end of a period of life. The schools are now trying to deal with the situation in different ways. Online ceremonies are always an option, but most schools are trying to find a solution to create a more special event. Some schools in Germany, Finland and the Netherlands modified the ceremony to make it as personal as possible under the circumstances. Other schools like in Germany or the U.S. included cars to their events or even an American Football stadium. All of these schools tried to solve the same problem: celebrating the students’ achievements and still do not risk spreading Covid-19.
Flood of cancellations
No ‘Abistreich’ (graduation prank), no presentation of certificates as usual, no ‘Abiball’ (german prom). Helen Kugler (18) is a high school graduate at the Gymnasium in Markt Indersdorf, Germany. ‘Gymnasium’ is the german word for high school. The graduation degree, the ‘Abitur’, enables students to study at universities. Helen should have been officially presented with her Abitur certificate in the school’s assembly hall in July. In front of her family and her 109 fellow graduates. But events like this were suddenly banned in order to flatten the curve of infections.
In mid-June 2020, the federal government and the federal states in Germany agreed that there should be no more major events until the end of October. At that time, many countries made this decision. With a large number of people, contacts could no longer be traced and hygiene conditions could not be maintained.
Searching for the best among the bad alternatives
A possible solution from the school management of the Gymnasium in Markt Indersdorf would be to send the certificates to the students by mail. But instead, schools are looking for other ways to comply with the health ministry’s guidelines and still allow a personal delivery. Helen said that it was most important for the students to receive their report cards together with their schoolmates and therefore suggested a ceremony only among the students. This idea had already been rejected by the school management: Parents should also be allowed to take part. The students will now vote on different variants. The class of 110 students will be divided into quarters and the report cards will be handed over in four different ceremonies. The headmaster and the senior school coordinator would be present at every ceremony and the students are allowed to bring two guests each. “I think that is fine as long as you can divide the groups yourself. So, you can at least have the farewell party with your friends,” said Helen Kugler. As a second option, each student could bring more people to the ceremony – but then there would be more appointments.
Just like the presentation of certificates, prom cannot take place as planned. Originally it was supposed to take place on July 2 with about 500 people in the Luitpoldhalle in Freising. From July 1 onwards, events with up to 50 people could take place again in Bavaria. More than 500 people is a whole different story.
Selina Turner is part of the team that planned the Abiball. Catering, photographer, insurance, afterparty, music – many things have already been decided. Now, she is trying to set a new date. The planning team had 6,000 euros at their disposal that they earned by organizing several parties in the last two years. “We have the money, so we want to make up for it,” said Selina. Even if a prom would be permitted again from November on, the location is fully booked for the rest of the year. Students are also voting on how to carry out the ‘Abiball’ in the best possible way. Either the prom should be allowed to take place as planned, but in 2021, separate from next year’s graduate’s prom. Another option would be a ball on the school courtyard this summer. The last option suggests that the students meet somewhere together as soon as it is possible and celebrate with drinks and a party but without a formal dance, using the 6,000 euros to pay for it. Selina said that the voting turnout is very low. It seemed to her as if most students are not interested in the ‘Abiball’ anymore. Only 50 people voted, 25 for the Abiball next year and 25 for the party.
Dress up like it is prom night
Helen Kugler said that many of her classmates do not want to meet up for a prom way later than originally planned: “Most of them are done with school after graduation.” They have already found another way to try and make up for canceled festivities, at least a little bit. The theme week was extended to two weeks. The students of the graduation classes came to school dressed matching to a specific motto. Different themes were set. Themes included childhood heroes and the 90s. One was special: ‘Abiball’. “I was lucky because I had not bought my dress yet. But many others already had theirs,” said Helen. The students wanted to get the possibility to wear their prom outfits even without a prom. But taking photos was not allowed on the school grounds. The teachers were afraid that the distance could not be maintained, especially on group photos. Therefore, Helen and her friends had a little ritual for the two theme weeks: “We usually met after school somewhere else in Markt Indersdorf and then took photos there.”
Finland: “No, we want a real party!”
Ari Korhonen is a student counselor at Erkko High School in Orimattila, Finland. Before everything had to take place online because of the outbreak of the coronavirus, the graduation classes were able to write all their exams at school on March 20. But Covid-19 still changed all the plans for their graduation festivities. Ari Korhonen said at the end of May, that most schools in Finland will let the graduation ceremony take place online with a short speech of the headmaster and some music. Smaller schools with less than 50 pupils in graduation classes will be allowed to celebrate the graduation at school. The Finnish Prime Minister and the Minister for Education recommended postponing the celebrations until the end of August. Online or at school? Erkki High School left it for the students to decide. “They said: ‘No, we want a real party in August’,” said Ari Korhonen.
50 states – One party
Many high school graduates in the U.S. would have wished for a real party as well. Americans are known for having huge proms. Above all, however, the awarding of certificates is a highlight of their school days for American graduates. They traditionally wear long black capes and graduation caps with a cord attached. As soon as they hold their report card in their hands, they are allowed to put the cord on the other side of the hat. Lastly, all graduates throw their caps in the air.
But not this year. Virtual events like “Dear class of 2020” or “#GraduateTogether” made it possible for all students in the U.S. to celebrate together differently. They could not celebrate with their classmates, but they shared their moment with many others nationwide, and even worldwide, who are in the same situation as them: graduates in times of Covid-19. And they received congratulations from celebrities like Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Michelle and Barack Obama and Shawn Mendes in a virtual graduation party. But can that replace a gathering with your loved ones?
Celebration in an American Football Stadium
Therefore, many individual schools in addition to these national online events held their graduation ceremony via the internet. In Dallas, Texas, 37 virtual graduation ceremonies were held for more than 8,900 seniors. Leslie Stephens, Assistant Superintendent of School Leadership, told the television channel NBC Dallas: “This year for the first time we’re paying for all of the students’ caps and gowns so students aren’t having to incur those kinds of costs.” Usually, a graduation package with gown and cap costs around 25 US Dollars each. This should be a gift for the students, as they have to graduate without the typical ceremony.
A couple of high schools in Dallas have found a way to get around the policy of not hosting big indoor events. In order to give the students an unforgettable graduation despite the Covid-19 regulations, 4,000 students from seven schools were allowed to celebrate their graduation ceremony at the Dallas Cowboys’ American football stadium. Everything was regulated by a strict hygienic protocol, so no one would be endangered. Each school had its stadium graduation on a different date. Since the stadium has no roof and seats for 80,000 people, the students could comply with social distancing rules at all times.
No last school day traditions
A special day for all American students is the last day of high school – clearing their locker, picking up their yearbook, hanging out with friends, and then heading home. At Greenhill High School in Dallas, this year’s last day was completely unusual, said Donna Vos. She is the parent´s representative at her daughter Caroline´s school. Vos said that all students were instructed in advance to put everything they had to return to the school like books, instruments, sports equipment, and technology in their trunks. On May 22, teachers emptied them all, placed the contents in large paper bags, labeled them with the students´ names, and arranged them alphabetically. The students were given timeslots where the exchange of their things would take place. At the outer gate, a teacher spoke the student´s name in the car into a walkie-talkie. A team of teachers waited in the gym and then picked out the paper bag with the locker belongings of the student. The student drove to a pickup point at the gym and a teacher then exchanged belongings. The school year was officially over.
Drive and celebrate
This tradition did not quite work out the way the students probably imagined it before the coronavirus outbreak. Nevertheless, they did not want to let their celebration and their time to shine be taken away just like that. For this reason, a ‘Senior Car Parade and Campus Farewell’ of the seniors together with their families took place on May 29.
The students painted the cars, decorated them with balloons, and made signs. Although they were sitting in their cars, they could celebrate their farewell together.
Flag out and separate ceremonies in the Netherlands
Some Dutch schools have a graduation tradition that is not affected by Covid-19. Joy in’t Veld (17) has just successfully completed the Wellantcollege in Dordrecht. Like the other students who graduated in the Netherlands, Joy hung the national flag outside of her house, attached it to her school bag that accompanied her every day as she studied. Everyone could see that Joy graduated. At least this tradition could be carried out as expected this year. Unlike her graduation. “I was actually expecting everything to happen just online,” said Joy. Instead of a big party with awards, personal congratulations from the teachers, and live music, the school had to think of something else. The solution was to split the event. First, the party with live music – but online. Via a YouTube link, all students could participate from home on June the 30th. But the personal aspect should not be neglected. One week after the online party the school held a ceremony.
Similar to the proposal in Helen’s school, Joy’s year got split up. The certificates were awarded in four sessions. Joy was only allowed to bring two accompanying people because of the social distancing rules. With her parents, she waited in the car in front of the school like the other students. Only when their names were called, the family was allowed to enter the building and their graduation ceremony began. Joy could not have imagined a better way under these circumstances. She grinned and said excitedly: “I am very glad because I could really see the people live. And you can tell each other ‘I am so happy for you, you made it!’ I had not seen some of my friends in four months”, she said.
Also, Huibert Klop decided that a smaller but personal ceremony was the best choice for his classes. He is a teacher at the Calvijn School in Rotterdam and said: “We thought it would be nicer to celebrate the graduation with the students as a group.” The students spent at least five years together and should now be able to celebrate graduation together. “We gave speeches and sang a little song for the students, as we do every year.” The school held the ceremony four times. For all relatives and friends who could not witness the moment personally, they presented a live stream on YouTube.
The walk-through variant
Klop settled to have a farewell ceremony in the group. But there were also teachers at his school who decided to celebrate with their students in another way. With more individual attention but still with the lowest risk of a Covid-19 spreading. Their farewell party took place in front of the school. Separated stations were set up as an exam secretary where the graduates get their diploma signed, a station for taking pictures, and different stations where the graduates could talk to their teachers and said goodbye personally. The students lined up, always keeping their distance from each other, and went from station to station with their companions. As soon as a graduate finished at one station and went to the next, the one behind him moved up. It was a walk-through instead of a drive-through. “It is more personal than doing it by car and it is more practical too because you do not need so much space as for the cars”, said Huibert Klop. But there are also schools in the Netherlands that have opted for the drive-through variant.
No matter which option the teachers chose: saying goodbye to students with social distancing rules was difficult for everyone. They had exchanged many ideas. “One teacher said at our meeting, ‘I have this special student and we have been through so much and I am definitely going to hug her’, but you can’t really say that because if anything happens we are the ones to blame”, said Huibert Klop.
Drive-In movie theater: graduation style
At first glance, the graduation plans at the German Gymnasium school in Markt Schwaben are similar to those in Markt Indersdorf. At the ‘Abistreich’, a class traditionally plans a prank for the school in order to be remembered. It was already planned and canceled. Also, the planned photo campaign and the theme week were not allowed to take place. The ‘Abiball’ was scheduled for June 26th but got canceled as well. The high school graduate Charlotte Prechtl (18) had completely different expectations of her graduation. On New Year’s Eve, she celebrated with a few classmates. “I remember how we all stood there and thought: Oh my god, this year will just be the best year”, she said. Then Covid-19 came. In May, Charlotte Prechtl was bitterly disappointed: “That is the hardest thing: To accept that there is hardly proper graduation.”
At least the graduation ceremony should take place solemnly. One possibility could be a ceremony in the drive-in movie theater.
Stefan Mund is the operator of the drive-in movie theater in Aschheim in Germany and has built a stage with two screens in addition to the cinema screen, so speeches can be given without risk. All students are in cars with their companions in front of the stage. They can receive the sound from the stage via radio. The students can see their teachers through the windscreen and listen to their speeches.
Personal farewells are also possible in the drive-in movie theater, said Stefan Mund: “The report recipient gets out of the car each time and goes on stage.” Up to three people are allowed on stage at most. It is an unconventional way of awarding, but one that allows students and their families to experience the moment together. For many schools in the Munich area, this is currently the solution. “Sufficient inquiries from schools are available,” said Stefan Mund.
Due to the loosened guidelines, Charlotte Prechtl can relax with her classmates at the lake for a few more weeks, before their paths for study and travel separate them for the time being. She will soon begin her bachelor’s studies with integrated training.
In 2020, many graduation ceremonies did not take place like in other years. But maybe that is why they were so special.