WOOD RIVER JCT. — It won’t be the traditional graduation ceremony at the University of Rhode Island’s Ryan Center, but students, teachers and administrators have put their heads together to find ways to honor Chariho seniors during the COVID-19 pandemic while still keeping everyone safe.
After consulting with local police and emergency management officials and considering several proposals, including a drive through celebration at Ninigret Park, Interim Superintendent of Schools Jane Daly said the district would hold a “celebration parade” on June 5 on the Chariho campus and at some point, an in-person celebration when it eventually becomes safe to hold large gatherings.
In the meantime, the district will adhere to social distancing and face mask guidelines.
“In hearing from the students, what they wanted most is the opportunity to celebrate together, so we will plan something next year when it is safe to do so,” she said. “Meanwhile, we also want to identify a safe way to celebrate now, complying with Rhode Island Department of Health guidelines. By holding a celebration parade spread out over 1½ hours on the evening of the graduation, having a parent or guardian in each car and driving in one entrance of the campus and simply drive through, leaving out the other exit, police and safety officials felt that we could ensure no one would get out of their cars. The size and set-up of our campus allows us to provide a uniquely Chariho celebration.”
Chariho Principal Craig MacKenzie said that in consulting with students about the kind of celebration they preferred, it was clear that most of all, they missed having a chance to celebrate with their friends.
“I think the most important thing was, the students felt really strongly that they wanted to have some type of experience,” he said. “When we talked to the Class Council they messaged that it was really important that somewhere down the road, they actually connect and do something that was more of a semblance of a graduation ceremony, kind of what they were supposed to have, and we’re very committed to doing that down the road.”
Assistant Principal Andrea Spas said students and their parents would receive instructions before the celebration on how to remain safe.
“Parents and students are going to have clear expectations about how to participate to make sure that we can make sure that social distancing takes place,” she said. “You know, what’s really important to us is that we celebrate and honor our students while at the same time ensuring their safety and health. That’s going to be really important.”
Parents will be required to drive the cars in the parade, but students are free to decorate their vehicles. Cars will enter the campus in alphabetical order, according to the seniors’ last names.
“We’ll have a parade route, up Switch Road and around campus where we will also have faculty and staff out, hopefully dressed up in their graduation garb, if they have it, to cheer students on,” Spas said.
Mackenzie said the district would maintain strict social distancing guidelines.
“A police officer will check to make sure that they’re complying with our expectations and everybody will be making sure the nobody’s jumping out of their cars or congregating,” he said.
Richmond Chief Elwood Johnson said he was satisfied that the district was doing everything it could to keep participants safe.
“I’m very comfortable with the fact that they solicited our input and through dialogue with them via a conference call, we sorted through some ideas and came up with a safe, respectful plan that will afford graduating seniors some special experiences on campus,” he said.
Following the parade, the district will broadcast a virtual graduation ceremony at 8 p.m., which families will be able to watch on YouTube in their homes. The virtual ceremony will include pre-recorded speeches and performances by the band and chorus. Once the virtual ceremony is over, the hope is that graduates will remain at home and there will be unsanctioned parties.
Johnson said his department would be working with Charlestown and Hopkinton police as well as Rhode Island State Police to make sure everyone stays safe at home.
“We’ll all be aware and cognizant and vigilant on responsible behaviors and making sure that people are not getting together for unofficial celebrations,” he said.
In the days leading up to the graduation parade, students will be invited to come to the school at 15-minute intervals, accompanied by up to six family members, to receive their diplomas, caps and gowns, honor chords and other commendations issued by the school. Dressed in their caps and gowns, students will be invited to pose for videos and still photographs in front of the high school building. The photos and videos will be included in the virtual graduation ceremony.
“From May 29 to the 5th [of June], we’re going to schedule our students to come with their parents to school,” MacKenzie said. “We’ve got an exchange that we have to do. They’ve got to give us their devices, textbooks, close out any school related fines or things they need to take care of. We need to give them their caps and their gowns and personal possessions and their diplomas, and do it in a socially-distanced, safe way.”
The district will have four stations set up, one for students turning in their laptop computers, another for textbooks, a third for paying outstanding fines and one for diplomas and caps and gowns.
Seniors are also being recognized in special lawn signs which faculty members have placed outside their homes.
“One side says ‘congratulations we are proud of you, senior strong, Chariho 2020,’ and then the other side is art work, created by one of our students, Emily Stevens, and it’s beautiful,” Spas said. “It’s very vibrant and bright and it’s the front of our school building.”
The graduation concludes a school year that was abruptly and dramatically altered by the COVID-19 crisis, which necessitated the closing of schools throughout Rhode Island. MacKenzie said the experience had shaken the entire Chariho community.
“We’re just trying to give some meaning to some kids that really lost out on what, for me personally, were some of the most significant moments of my life,” he said. “I know we’re falling short and I know it’s not enough, and we’re just going to have to work towards a time when we can get ‘em all back together.”