The Madison Metropolitan School District class of 2020 will be able to watch their graduation ceremonies at home in place of the traditional in-person event at the Kohl Center, though district officials hope to gather the group in person later in the year.
District officials announced the plan for WISC-TV to broadcast four hour-long ceremonies for the comprehensive high schools and a half-hour special for Shabazz and Capital high schools in a virtual news conference on Wednesday afternoon.
The programs will air on June 12 and 13 in prime time and be streamed online, with a "graduation edition" of the channel's news program immediately before the Friday evening ceremonies. The programs will feature photos of graduating seniors and speeches from students, principals and keynote speakers.
“I know that this will not replace in-person graduation, but I think that this is going to be a very special event that we’re going to be putting on hand-in-hand with these partners," said MMSD chief of high schools Mike Hernandez.
WISC-TV news director Sarah Gray said they were looking for ways to incorporate various musical performances, as well.
“We haven’t ever done something like this before, so this is really a unique opportunity to try something new," Gray said. “We’re doing our best to make sure that every student does get their recognition that parents, families are craving right now. You can expect it to look as much like a graduation as we can.”
The district announced last month that in-person graduation would not take place this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has schools closed through the academic year. In a May 1 update, interim superintendent Jane Belmore told families that it would put together an “in-person celebration to be held later in the year, on a date to be determined” once larger gatherings are considered safe.
School Board member Cris Carusi, who has a child graduating from high school this spring, said she is "absolutely heartbroken" she won't get to see her daughter graduate this year at the Kohl Center.
"I'm grateful that MMSD is working closely with the community to ensure we are upholding and honoring the achievements of these students in the safest possible way," Carusi said.
She added that while the district cannot set a date for the in-person ceremony at this point, she's glad the district has committed to such an event.
“MMSD has made a commitment that the class of 2020 will meet again to celebrate in person when it is safe to do so," she said. "As a board member, I will make sure we uphold that commitment. As a mom, I can’t wait to see everybody in person and celebrate our kids.”
MMSD will additionally use billboards to highlight students and their achievements around the city over a two-week period.
The state Department of Public Instruction encouraged districts to “carefully consider what personally identifiable information may be inadvertently shared” during a virtual graduation ceremony. DPI also offered a host of resources for districts to consider, including suggesting distributing the link to the virtual event only directly to participants or using password protection.
Public Health Madison & Dane County also issued a list of potential graduation ceremony options in an April 23 memo, suggesting lining up speakers and creating a slideshow of the year for students. The document stressed that drive-thru graduations or a driving parade through town would not be allowed under the Safer-at-Home order that runs through May 26, which is also facing a challenge in the state Supreme Court.
Districts around Dane County and nation are adjusting their ceremony plans, with some districts choosing to push back in-person ceremonies later into the summer. In some states, like Texas, the state will allow socially distant ceremonies to celebrate.
National celebrations are also being planned, with former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama headlining a nationally televised May 16 event that also features LeBron James and Malala Yousafzi. Oprah and other celebrities will host another ceremony on Facebook and Instagram Live on May 15.
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