Teachers whooped and waved at graduating seniors earlier this week as they drove slowly through Jefferson High School’s parking lot.
From minivans and sport utility vehicles, teenagers declared their post-grad plans, posed for photos and picked up celebratory yard signs, waving to school staff they hadn’t seen in person since mid-March.
Poised to enter adulthood while the world is gripped by the coronavirus pandemic, the Class of 2020’s high school experience ended unceremoniously in mandated school closures through the rest of the academic year. For most, senior prom has been scrapped or postponed. Graduation ceremonies are in jeopardy.
Educators across Iowa and the country are trying to preserve some normalcy for high school graduates, looking for ways to celebrate students from afar.
“Kids don’t know what they’re missing,” Jefferson Associate Principal Chad Szabo said from behind a homemade face mask. “They’re not getting that experience in the same way.”
As her family’s truck finished its loop around her Cedar Rapids high school, Chloe Phommathep sat beaming in the back seat.
“It actually made me feel happy,” she said, as a Kool & The Gang song floated across the school’s main drive. “Just being able to have some sort of celebration — I needed a bright spot and something fun to happen.”
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Spring graduation ceremonies, clustered around the Memorial Day weekend, have been canceled for all high schools in the Cedar Rapids Community School District.
Jefferson administrators said Monday’s celebration outside the school was only the start of events for seniors, and the district is thinking through options for holding others.
In the Center Point-Urbana Community School District, an outright cancellation is unthinkable for high school Principal Robert Libolt.
“It’s a big milestone. They’re going to graduate college, get married, have kids, have a first job — but this is their first big milestone,” he said. “Not only for them, but for their parents. This could be their first or their last to graduate. And it’s a milestone for me and our staff — we’ve been with these kids for four years.”
Libolt has set three alternate dates for an in-person graduation ceremony: June 19, July 19 and Aug. 7. He also has reschedule dates for prom on June 27 and July 11. He’s hopeful, but knows large gatherings still might not be allowed by then. He said the rescheduled events will depend on the state’s social distancing guidelines.
“I want these parents and kids to know we won’t just give up on them. Too many times, people cancel before they really need to. I don’t want to do that for these kids,” he said. “They don’t have another opportunity to graduate from high school.”
One Center Point-Urbana senior, Ben Estling, said his sudden isolation has been bizarre. He’s used to football, basketball, baseball and track practice on top of his involvement in student council, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Future Business Leaders of America.
Not having any closure to high school would be strange, he said, though graduating just weeks before starting college would be, too.
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“It would be different, but I’d still really appreciate it if the school would want to do that for us,” Estling said, adding he misses seeing his friends every day at school. “ … It’s been really hard. I went from seeing them every day, and then without any warning that stopped.”
School districts are grappling with how to preserve celebratory rites of passage for this year’s class of seniors — dubbed the “Class of 2019.75” and “Generation Unstoppable” by local retailer Raygun.
If those milestone moments are lost to the pandemic, Kahle Boutte has one idea for a replacement — a surprise llama.
As owner and operator of Prairie Patch Farms near Shueyville, she’s discounted visits with her llamas for grads — from $75 to $60 — and hopes to spread happiness to a few seniors.
“I just felt so sad for all the seniors because they spend their whole life waiting for that moment,” Boutte said. “We dress them up for Valentine’s Day, and we do birthday grams, so I thought, let me see if I can get a hold of some caps and colored stoles.”
She’s booking the visits through Eventbrite and has already sold some 20 visits.
“I can go basically incognito with llamas anywhere,” she said, noting the animals are glad to ride in the back of her minivan. “Graduates can hold the lead ropes, hug them and take photos with them.”
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