School officials detail possible virtual commencement ceremony

Proposed event would feature individual students on stage, social distancing

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The Mitchell High School Performing Arts Center. (Republic file photo)

Graduation for the Mitchell High School Class of 2020 will look considerably different this year.

School officials recently outlined a proposed plan for holding the annual event in a virtual-style format. The plan was developed by student leaders and advisers as a way to bring a sense of closure to a school year that has seen its in-person classes and activities derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The disease has killed tens of thousands around the United States alone this year, bringing regular life almost to a halt.

Joe Childs, principal of Mitchell High School, has spearheaded the effort along with senior class and student body leaders, brainstorming possible alternatives to the live commencement ceremony, which was originally scheduled for May 17.

“I want nothing more than to provide students and their families with a ceremony they deserve. We’re working hard to put together something that will honor their work, but at this time we are unable to assemble in large groups,” Childs said in a recent meeting with members of the media. “To get the ball rolling, I met with senior class officers and hashed around several ideas, as well as ideas from students, parents, community members, educators and non-educators. We had a lot of viewpoints to work with, which was nice.”

Childs said any type of live commencement service would have to be delayed past the original May 17 date, likely as far back as September. In the event social distancing recommendations from government officials and medical professionals remain in place for an extended period of time, it would become more and more difficult for some seniors to participate as they move on to the next phase of their lives, be it college, a job or the military.


“A virtual ceremony would allow us to put together a commencement virtually and still maintain social distancing. It doesn’t allow us the contact we want, that’s the downside. The upside is we can put together a commencement where nearly everybody who is willing and able can participate in it,” Childs said.

Childs and the student representatives included both a delayed live commencement and virtual commencement options in a survey to the seniors, asking them to select their preferred choice.

“The responses were overwhelmingly in favor of a virtual commencement. It was nearly 71 percent of the students that determined that that would be the best option for them,” Childs said. “After receiving that feedback, I put together a proposal for the school board and (district Superintendent Joe) Graves to consider.”

Under the proposed plan, seniors, of which there are about 160 expected to graduate this year, would reserve a block of time, perhaps a three-minute window sometime over a two-day period, where they would participate in the virtual commencement sometime before the original May 17 date. The students would arrive at the Mitchell High School Performing Arts Center parking lot and wait in their vehicles until they are ushered into the building by a school employee.

The student would enter the building during their assigned time and a photographer would take their picture in their graduation attire. The student would then proceed to the stage in an empty auditorium where they will be announced by Childs, walk across the stage as per tradition, and receive their diploma. The process would then be repeated for the next scheduled student.

Student speakers and soloists who feel comfortable enough to give their speech or perform from the Performing Arts Center stage, which would be decorated for the event like it has been in previous years, would be encouraged to do so, Childs said.

Doors to the building would be propped open so students would not need to touch any surfaces in the building, and hand sanitizer stations would be available. Social distancing practices would be maintained during the process, Childs said. The school is still considering whether to allow parents to enter the auditorium with their child to watch them walk across the stage, he said.

Each student would be recorded receiving their diploma, with the footage later edited together to resemble a live graduation ceremony.


“The idea is that each student would be recorded receiving their diploma and our tech teacher would put these videos together to resemble a video of a live graduation. The idea is that it would look like it happened live, but it would be a recording,” Childs said.

The video would then be made available at 2 p.m. May 17, the originally-scheduled date and time for the live commencement.

“Families and students will be able to watch it in a way that they feel most comfortable. They can get together in their homes or with their family members,” Childs said.

Childs said if the virtual ceremony is approved by the Mitchell Board of Education, it would be the only official graduation ceremony for the Class of 2020. But he would still like to hold some type of celebration for the class when officials give the go-ahead to gather in larger groups again.

He said he also hopes to hold a virtual rendition of the annual senior recognition event, which features a slideshow of photos of the graduates and recognizes them for academic and scholarly achievements.

The commencement proposal is on the agenda for the April 27 meeting of the Mitchell Board of Education, which will be held at 5 p.m. via teleconference.

Graves said while he could not speak for the board itself, he expected it would give strong consideration to the proposal.

“All the students were surveyed, and we’re trying to do what the students have requested. So I think there’s a strong argument for this idea, so I suspect it would enjoy support, but we’ll see,” Graves said.


Locker cleanout

Childs also said Mitchell High School would begin cleaning out student lockers and distributing their belongings to them April 28.

“When you have 800-plus students at Mitchell High School, this (process) can get pretty cumbersome,” Childs said.

The school will have employees pack up the belongings of the students, who would then come to the school in a predesignated order. They would remain in their vehicles while an employee brings a plastic bag of their items and gives it to them without the student having to leave the vehicle.

The procedure is expected to be held between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

“We know that it won’t be as speedy as we want it to be, but it will be the best we can do,” Childs said.

He also said that the district has no specific plans yet on how to handle students returning textbooks and laptops at the end of the year, but however it is done, it won’t happen until the last day of class for the year, since students need the equipment and materials to complete their coursework.

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at
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