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ROCKLAND, Maine — In an attempt to provide the Class of 2020 with a graduation experience worth remembering, a number of Maine high schools are planning “drive-in” ceremonies, with some taking place at airports and others at actual drive-in movie theaters.
The unusual ceremonies are being held because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has kept students home across the country since March and is preventing schools from holding traditional ceremonies where students and attendees sit inches away from each other.
Oceanside High School in Rockland will be holding a graduation ceremony at the Knox County Regional Airport on June 9. School officials and students say the alternative graduation will not only bring closure to senior year that was co-opted by a pandemic, but an experience to remember.
“[Graduation] is a really important milestone in all of their lives. So to not have anything, or to have something that isn’t really a celebration of that seemed extra unfair to [students],” Oceanside High School Principal Jesse Bartke said. “This is a once-in-a-pandemic event. We won’t ever have another graduation at the airport, which makes it even more special for these students.”
Belfast Area High School will be having a similar ceremony at the Belfast Municipal Airport. In southern Maine, the Bridgton Twin Drive-In will be serving as the venue for both the Lakes Region High School and the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School.
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Mount Desert Island High School will also be holding a drive-in style graduation ceremony on June 7; however, parking space at the high school gymnasium will allow that graduation to happen on school grounds, according to the Mount Desert Islander.
To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Maine Department of Education has issued guidance to schools on how they can hold graduations. The ceremonies are limited to 50 people with everyone seated at least 6 feet apart and wearing face coverings.
Some Maine school districts, like those in Brewer and Hermon, are planning in-person ceremonies, where the class will be broken down into smaller groups to cross the stage and receive their diploma to adhere to the state’s guidelines.
However, the department also permitted drive-in ceremonies, which would allow for an entire class to attend since they are separated by household in cars. School officials whose districts are taking the drive-in route felt it allowed them to hold onto some of the aspects of a traditional graduation ― like being able to watch class leaders give their speeches in real time and see their entire class receive their diplomas ― even if it’s from the safety of their cars.
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“We’ve been able to hold onto a lot of the aspects of a traditional graduation, it just looks a little bit different,” Bartke said. “It’s given us a real opportunity to reflect on ‘What are the important parts of this ceremony and this process?’”
The idea to host Oceanside’s graduation at the Knox County Regional Airport was brought to the school district by the airport’s manager, who offered up space behind the terminal. Any air traffic will be conducted away from that area while the ceremony is going on.
For the ceremony, cars will be parked facing a stage, spaced out with six feet in between each car. Students will sit in their cars with their family until it is time for them to approach the stage in groups of less than ten students at a time. When out of their cars, students and others in attendance must wear masks.
Oceanside High School seniors Krista Butler and Emily Boynton said at first, when all of their rites of passage were getting upended, they were skeptical about a non-traditional graduation ceremony. But as the pandemic dug in its heels, they have embraced the alternative arrangements, especially since school administration welcomed their input.
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“There definitely was a time when I wasn’t really warmed up to the idea. I’m very much someone who likes how things are supposed to be,” Boynton said. “But that just isn’t possible right now. So as we started moving on and planning stuff out, I’ve actually come to really like the idea.”
Per Maine Department of Education guidelines, the hand-off of diplomas from school staff to students must be contactless. But Bartke said they wanted to do something more than just placing the diplomas on a sterile table.
So parents or guardians will be walking on stage with graduates to present them their diplomas. Parents are excited that they get to participate in handing their children’s diploma over to them. Butler’s dad is hoping to create some special type of handshake for the moment, but she isn’t sold on the idea.
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Students and family members will be able to remove their masks only to take a brief photo. The school’s project graduation group has paid for a photographer to take pictures in front of the stage, since social distancing won’t allow for multiple people to take photos.
The ceremony will be preceded by a police-escorted car parade beginning at the high school and ending at the airport in neighboring Owls Head. Since parking space is limited, having a parade route was a way to get more people involved in the celebration, Bartke said.
Between local police offering to escort the graduating seniors to their ceremony, to the airport offering up the space, Bartke said this graduation is truly a community affair.
“It’s been planned through a great deal of community support,” Bartke said. “Everyone is being really creative and flexible and really rallying to make something meaningful.”
With a class of only 89 students, Boynton and Butler said the plans for this year’s graduation has made them grateful to come from a small community where things like airport graduations are possible.
“There is always a way to celebrate,” Butler said. “[The community] is standing up for us and celebrating us even though they can’t do it in the normal kind of ways. So that’s been a really good lesson, is to appreciate our small community.”
Watch: What Maine is doing to expand contact tracing