BAR HARBOR — Members of the Mount Desert Island High School class of 2020 will receive their diplomas this Sunday in what undoubtedly will be the most unusual graduation ceremony in the school’s history.
With 115 students, this also is the smallest graduating class in recent years.
Because of COVID-19 social distancing rules, students will sit in their cars with their families in the parking lot near the school’s gym to listen to welcoming remarks by Principal Matt Haney and short speeches by two members of the senior class. Seniors will then stand in small groups – staying at least six feet apart – and when their names are called, they will walk to a table to pick up their diplomas.
The student speakers are Gianna Turk, who was selected by the faculty, and Winslow Jeffery, who was chosen by the senior class.
Haney said the start time for the graduation ceremony is being moved from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. “because at two o’clock it’s going to be too hot for people to be sitting in their cars in the parking lot.”
The original plan for celebrating the graduates called for the ceremony to be followed by a parade of vehicles through the towns where the graduates live. But that has been canceled.
“It didn’t seem to meet the straight-face test for a school that just won a national Green Ribbon Award [for reducing its environmental impact] to take a motorcade of 200 cars and drive around for an hour and a half,” Haney said.
As an alternative, a group of parents is organizing motorcades to escort graduating seniors from their hometowns to the high school, and they are encouraging residents to stand along the roadsides to cheer the students as they go by.
Parents also have hired a professional fireworks company for a fireworks display over Somes Sound on Sunday night.
Last week, high school senior Hannah Hanscom started an online petition, which ultimately was signed by more than 550 people, calling on Haney to reconsider the plan to have students remain in their vehicles for the graduation ceremony.
“Being confined to our vehicles with just our family members…strips us of the opportunity to experience graduation with our peers,” Hanscom wrote. “Holding a ‘drive in’ graduation also adds unnecessary stress for students who have split families. Some students may have parents/guardians quarantined in different homes or parents that do not get along, which creates an unhealthy environment, emotionally and in terms of virus spread, if they are confined to one vehicle.”
She suggested the graduation ceremony could be held on the football field, with seniors sitting in chairs set six feet apart.
“As for families, there can be designated seating areas along the track, spaced six feet apart as well,” Hanscom wrote. “If the track does not provide enough room, families can also utilize the bleachers. This proposal can…make sure that safety is the top priority, as well as preserving the tradition of graduation.
“While I value our community’s health and safety, I also value the thoughts, ideas and feelings of my senior class,” Hansom wrote.
She added that she is “very appreciative of the faculty at MDIHS for even giving us an opportunity to have graduation, because students from other schools may not be able to say the same.”
Haney said he appreciated the tone of the petition and the fact that Hanscom also contacted him directly.
“Some of her ideas were not possible because of the guidelines and the rules we have around gatherings,” he said. “Some of her ideas were good. I was really proud of her for reaching out and helping to solidify details that weren’t in place yet.”
Haney said he talked with Hanscom and two other students about ways to improve the graduation plan. It originally called for students to get out of their vehicle, along with their family, when their names were called to receive their diploma.
“But Hannah and the other students really felt it was a time that students wanted to stand together,” Haney said. “So, the parents will stay in their vehicles, and the students will get out in small groups, six feet apart.”
He said that, like everyone else, he is disappointed this year’s seniors cannot have a traditional graduation experience.
“It’s been frustrating in that, no matter how hard we try, we can’t recreate the special circumstances of not just graduation, but the whole process, the whole week before,” he said, adding that he appreciates all the comments and suggestions he has received.
“Most of the feedback that we’ve gotten, even if it wasn’t glowing, was respectful. I love the way our community sticks up for each other, particularly right now for this group of graduates.”