WESTERLY — Under a recently released plan, members of the Westerly High School Class of 2020 will have the opportunity to watch a graduation video on the big screen in Misquamicut, where drive-in movies play during the summer, or enjoy a live stream of the video from the comfort of their homes.
While not ideal, school officials said they hope the event will be a safe experience during the COVID-19 pandemic that the seniors will remember positively. Plans for the event reflect guidance issued by the Rhode Island Department of Education and consider restrictions, including a prohibition on large in person events, that were put in place by Gov. Gina Raimondo.
By organizing the watch party and giving families the choice of watching a live stream from home, district officials hoped to provide options said Westerly High School Principal Michael Hobin.
"It's a really difficult plan to try to manage because you have some families that are not nervous but then you have parents who do not want to be in large crowds or groups," Hobin said Monday.
The video will be produced to replicate, as much as possible, a traditional graduation ceremony. While there will not be an in-person distribution of diplomas, photographs of class members both individually and with a family member will be part of the video. The photographs will also be given to students as a keepsake.
The traditional speeches by students and others will also be part of the video presentation. Much of the music that is part of traditional ceremonies has to be dropped, but three students will sing the National Anthem.
An overview of the plans was distributed to parents late last week. Hobin said he has received some criticism from some members of the community who were still holding out hope for a ceremony on Augeri Field, the traditional ceremony site.
"It's just not an option under the guidance we have to work with," Hobin said.
The event is scheduled for June 11 at 9 p.m., with a rain date of June 14. The time reflects the late sunset of the season.
Graduates who wish to watch the video at the drive-in will be asked to stay in their vehicles. To accommodate limited space and social distancing guidelines a one vehicle per graduate policy will be in place. The class has about 173 members. Both the town-owned Atlantic Avenue lot where the drive-in movies are located and the abutting Flyhawk parking lot will be used.
Working in conjunction with state education department staff, Raimondo's representatives, and his own administration, Hobin said planning focused on "working hard to create something that will be the best we can do for the kids."
Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau acknowledged the disappointment students and families have communicated since learning about the plan, but said officials are tasked with focusing on safety and following COVID-19 guidelines.
"It's a balance between honoring our graduates and providing them and their families with an experience they will be happy with, but doing that in the context of the governor's guidelines as promulgated by the state Department of Health and the state education department's guidance," Garceau said.
No public school district in the state is likely to conduct an in-person ceremony, Garceau said.
"Nobody is even having a conversation about a traditional face-to-face. It's just been completely taken off the table," Garceau said.
He said the pandemic has robbed students of important milestones such as sports and proms.
"It's been a disappointing end to their school careers so we have to try to be really thoughtful about providing a positive experience for them, something that they will remember," Garceau said.