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Area districts explore options for graduating seniors

Mirror file photo / This 2018 photo shows a student preparing to graduate from Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic High School.

When students walked out of school on March 13, it turned out to be for the last time this year as concerns of the spreading coronavirus prompted state officials to cancel in-person classes for the remainder of the academic year.

While area district officials have been able to keep the academic year rolling remotely, end-of-year programs like prom and graduation are in jeopardy with no firm answers on when social distancing mandates will end, schools are working on plans to give this year’s seniors some closure to their school careers.

Altoona Area High School’s graduation is scheduled for June 5 at Mansion Park, but as that date draws nearer, district officials have begun discussing alternative plans.

Superintendent Charles Prijatelj said the district is exploring a virtual graduation.

“There is an outside chance that we could have an outside graduation, but we are looking at the fact that we are not going to have the lifting of all the restrictions to make that possible,” he said. “We are looking at a virtual graduation to make sure every student gets recognized.”

Prijatelj said if the restrictions on social gatherings is not lifted in time for the scheduled graduation date, he is still hopeful an outside graduation could take place later in the summer, with the virtual ceremony being the final backup plan.

“The question is going to be if we can do something at another time,” he said. “If you say we are going to on June 30, then June 30 rolls around and we still can’t congregate, and then you are going to do something July 30, and then July 30 rolls around and now everybody is headed toward college. We want to make sure we recognize the seniors, and that’s the reason we want to put together a virtual graduation as a backburner, because it just makes the most sense.”

Prijatelj said no decisions have been made on prom, but now that graduation plans have been made, the district will discuss its options.

“We haven’t been focusing on prom as much as graduation because obviously that’s a much more important milestone,” he said. “But we will be looking into that. Right now, there are a lot of things up in the air about when we will be allowed to do it.”

At Hollidaysburg, Superintendent Robert Gildea said students and parents have indicated they want to have a graduation ceremony, even if it is later in the summer.

“We did a small-scale survey of parents and kids, and everyone was determined to have an actual face-to-face graduation if at all possible,” he said.

Hollidaysburg’s graduation is scheduled for June 4, with contingency plans made through August.

“June 4 is looking highly unlikely, but we have scheduled alternate dates.” Gildea said. “We’ve done everything we can to give parents, students and teachers hope that this may occur.”

Gildea said if it becomes clear that a normal graduation ceremony cannot be held, they will shift gears to a virtual format.

“We are developing a virtual option,” he said. “It won’t be live. Right now, we are leaning toward a recorded option, but even if the restrictions last through August, the kids will still have something.”

If social distancing restrictions are lifted in June, Hollidaysburg will hold its prom on June 12 at The Casino at Lakemont Park, but if that can’t happen, the district has set aside July 16 and Aug. 30 as dates for a formal senior dance to be held in the school auditorium.

The Claysburg-Kimmel School District has decided to cancel its prom but is moving forward with plans for a virtual graduation with an option to return later for a live ceremony if restrictions are lifted.

Superintendent Darren McLaurin said the district will hold its virtual commencement on May 31 and could possibly hold another ceremony if allowed.

“If something changes, and we are permitted to bring students and families into the auditorium for a traditional ceremony later in June, we will do so,” he said.

McLaurin said they are honoring seniors with the creation of a “Senior spotlight” on the district’s Facebook and Twitter pages and the district wants to expand the recognition into the community.

“We are looking to purchase yard signs and possibly secure a billboard in the district to honor the Class of 2020,” he said.

Prijatelj said final plans for graduation need to be made because time is running out. He said the next few weeks should make things clearer on what they can do in June, but plans for a virtual graduation should be set just in case.

“We are planning, but everything is a hypothetical at this point,” he said. “We are going to have to make a drop-dead decision and we are leaning toward, no matter what, having some kind of virtual recognition because the other options might not be available to us before the start of school in the fall.”

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