Anatomy of a COVID-19 graduation

By Nick Fonda

For the last 15 years, Mandy Sullivan, who teaches Grade 6 at St. Francis Elementary School in Richmond, has been creating a little extra time from April to June to help prepare the school’s annual graduation ceremonies. Of course, the template she and her team developed over that time has been all but discarded this year because of the COVID-19 epidemic.
“We normally get together early in April to start talking about the ­graduation exercises,” Mandy Sullivan says. “The two Grade 6 teachers—Jasmine Mason has been teaching the other Grade 6 class the last few years—are always involved but we’re always joined by four or five other teachers who want to help out.”
“One of the first things we have to do is narrow down the list of students who are candidates for awards and prizes,” she explains. “In all there are about 20 awards given. Some students will get a plaque, others receive a book, and this means getting plaques engraved and shopping for books.”
“In May,” she continues, “we start talking to the students about graduation, and we spend time on the valedictorian’s address. The students are conscious that this is a moment to both look back and look ahead, at the end of one phase of their education and the beginning of another. Interested students write a short valedictory speech as an exercise in writing and in public speaking. Students and teachers are involved in selecting the student who will deliver the valedictory address at graduation. Some years we have two valedictorians, and some years they’re joined by one or two other students who will recite something.”
In June, as graduation grows closer, the committee’s job list grows longer, and more people get involved.
“Both the Richmond St. Patrick’s Society and the St. Francis College Corporation present awards and we have to get in touch with their representatives,” Mandy says. “We also contact Kirk Robinson, the principal at RRHS, and invite him to address our graduates as our guest speaker. Perhaps most important we begin coordinating with the Parents Participatory Organization because they are the people who are in charge of the reception that follows in the gym right after the graduation exercises.”
These are held in the large space that was designed in the early 1940s to serve the dual purpose of auditorium and gymnasium. “It can accommodate about 250 people,” Mandy points out, “but it’s a space that fills up quite quickly. Typically, graduating students want to invite their entire families: parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles. We just don’t have the room. Depending on the number of graduates we have—this year there are 40—they are given three, or four, or five invitations to give to the guests they want to have there.”
A surprisingly large number of people put in a lot of time and effort to organize the graduation exercises and reception, an event that lasts little more than two or two and a half hours.
‘It’s a milestone,” Mandy explains, “and it’s important to underline that, to make it a memorable moment.”
“There was no question of not doing something this year, despite the pandemic,” she asserts. “We didn’t know what to do, or what could be done within the constraints set by public health officials, but we were determined that we would do something this year as well.”
Since elementary schools reopened their doors in May, adapting the school environment to follow the rules of social distancing has posed a considerable challenge, one that has been met with a variety of stratagems.
“Jasmine Mason and I both had a class of 20 students this year,” Mandy points out. “Jasmine continued teaching from home, communicating with her students via computer while I taught in the classroom where I had nine students, plus a tenth who joined us for the last week.”
“We’re adaptable and flexible and we managed,” says Mandy.
That same adaptability and flexibility went into the preparation of June’s graduation exercises which were staged as a drive-thru event that took place on Monday, June 22. Starting at 5 p.m. cars with parents, graduates and other family members inched along as they would at a Tim Horton’s.
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