PROVIDENCE -- They see high schools in other communities holding “drive-through” or “parade-style” graduations, where graduates and their families remain in their cars while relatives, friends, neighbors, and school officials wave and cheer.
They see other high schools holding “graduations by appointment,” with students crossing the stage to receive their diplomas at set times to avoid crowds.
And they see still other schools postponing in-person graduation ceremonies until some future point when the coronavirus pandemic is less of a threat.
So they are demanding to know why Providence’s 11 public high schools can’t adopt one of those options -- rather than going ahead with plans for “virtual graduations” between June 22 and 29.
“We feel that the Providence Public School District has done the bare minimum for its seniors,” said Grace Kelly, senior vice president of the Classical High School Class of 2020.
She said students fully appreciate the need for safety regulations amid the pandemic. But given the examples of other schools in Rhode Island and around the country, she said, "we see no reason that, with our creativity, we cannot find a way to honor our seniors properly.”
Kelly said 700 students signed a petition for a “drive-through” graduation, and students from high schools across the city -- including Mount Pleasant, the Providence Career & Technical Academy, and E-Cubed Academy -- have posted letters calling for better recognition for Class of 2020 graduates.
The new superintendent of Providence public schools, Harrison Peters, responded in a statement on Monday.
“As a father of two and a first-generation graduate, I know first-hand what commencement ceremonies mean to our community,” he said. “Limiting the district to virtual graduations was a difficult call to make, and I know that many families are disappointed.”
But in making that decision, district leaders felt they needed to put “safety and equity above all other considerations,” Peters said.
“Too many members of our community have been impacted by this virus already,” he said. “It simply is not worth the risk to host in-person events at this time.”
The Providence school district is working with a vendor -- Herff Jones/MarchingOrder -- so that each high school can have a unique virtual ceremony, he said. Every senior can submit a video clip to be aired during the ceremony, and the event will include speeches by valedictorians and other students.
To allow enough production time to create the virtual ceremonies, the district delayed the graduations until the last two weeks of June — beginning with E-Cubed Academy and Hope High School on June 22 and ending with the Providence Career & Technical Academy on June 29.
But Kelly said the school district should be trying to come up with a more creative solution, especially in the wake of the state’s recent takeover of Providence schools and a scathing report from Johns Hopkins University researchers.
“We should be doing more for our graduates across Providence, not less,” she said. “We want to turn around the narrative of Providence public schools. It has been so negative lately. By putting extra attention on new graduates, we can change the narrative to something more positive.”
Providence school district spokeswoman Laura Hart said officials did discuss the possibility of “drive-through” graduations. “But we felt that was not equitable because many of our families don’t have cars,” she said.
Also, Hart noted that a senior at a Bristol high school tested positive for COVID-19 the day before students were scheduled to be recorded walking across the stage for a virtual commencement ceremony there.
Providence school officials realize that the virtual graduation is not ideal, Hart said. “But we are not in an ideal situation,” she said, referring to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Kelly said students are in complete agreement with the need for safety and equity. But “that should not end the conversation," she said. "That should spark a conversation about how to find an equitable solution.”
For example, she noted that state guidelines for graduations include the option of “drive-in” style ceremonies. She noted that schools in other states are planning in-person ceremonies for later in the year. And she said that with public transportation running, families without cars would be able to get to “graduation by appointment” ceremonies.
Kelly said she, Classical senior class President Ayanna Rowe, and others have been pushing for better graduation ceremonies, and over the past four years students have advocated on a range of issues, such as climate change. “So we are used to having to advocate not only for ourselves, but for our community,” she said.
The letters posted from other Providence students included a message from Amber Munoz of Mount Pleasant High School.
“I waited for this day for about 18 years of my life, and I will have to wait a month after my actual graduation to attend an online ceremony that will mean nothing,” she wrote. “Me and my hard working classmates deserve more. So many people are making it happen. Why are we different?”
Another message came from Kassidy Khiv of the Providence Career & Technical Academy.
“We deserve a ‘regular’ graduation ceremony while following the guidelines per the governor’s order,” she wrote. “ ‘Crossing the stage’ is something that is so meaningful, considering this might be the last chance that some students get to cross a stage due to them not attending college."
She said it makes her sad "that no one with the power is willing to make something happen.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org