The Daily Globe - Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

A tale of two graduations


May 7, 2020

Tom LaVenture/Daily Globe

Hurley High School seniors try to exercise social distancing rules while containing the excitement of seeing one another in person on Tuesday, following a special school board meeting on the topic of virtual and in-person graduation ceremonies. Clockwise from left, Kailey Foryan and Kendahl Kivisto, students; Sarah Eder, school counselor; Melissa Oja, middle/high school principal; Emily Dalbeck, student, Kristy Dalbeck, parent, and Taylor Simonar, student.


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Hurley - The Hurley School Board was unanimous in maintaining the planned virtual high school graduation ceremony at a special meeting Tuesday for the purpose of setting dates so staff can start formalizing a program.

The decision included a board commitment to revisit a student-proposed plan for a second in-person ceremony at its June meeting. At that time the board anticipates the outlook for summer in terms of pandemic shutdown orders and bans on large groups will be more clear.

"I think the entire community feels for the senior class this year; you guys missed out on a lot on account of the pandemic," said Leslie Kolesar, school board president, in responding to student comments at the meeting. "There have been some rapid chances in our society norms and it has really tugged at the fabric, that fabric that holds us all together."

The plan in early April was to have an outdoor ceremony, said Kevin Genisot, school district administrator. The state rules against gatherings inside the building prevented a group event in the gymnasium and attention turned to the campus grounds or the football stadium, he said. 

In the weeks that followed, the input from the Hurley Police Department, Iron County Sheriff's Department, Iron County Health Department, Association of Wisconsin School District Administrators, and Wisconsin Association of School Boards made this impossible, he said.

"We kept with the current date but started looking at other ways to make it special," Genisot said, adding that the special meeting was necessary to hear input from the students and parents before making a decision to start planning the May 23 event just two weeks away.

"No matter what decision is made it's not going to be perfect, but it can be better," he said. "We want to offer the best experience that we possibly can."

Other complications include the wait for clarification on graduation events from the state Department of Health. There are no guidelines and some clarification is expected by Friday.

"Until we have parameters to work with we are limited to the governor's order which is not always clear," Genisot said.

He read a school attorney letter that expressed more uncertainty is coming regarding the governor's shutdown order. The state Supreme Court is also about to decide on the extent of the governor's order in granting authority to the secretary of health in the pandemic setting.

The decisions that are made over the next several days may require meeting again to revisit any decision made at this meeting, Genisot said. 

Joe Simonich, school board member, made the motion to stay with the May 23 virtual ceremony. He said that decisions at the state level might allow for changes but that for now a virtual ceremony at least guarantees some sort of graduation.

"The virus is a serious matter," Simonich said. "There is a lot of misinformation out there...What we do know is that it's extremely contagious; it kills people and our number one goal here at the school district has always been to do what's in the best interest of our students. Sometimes that's painful and I am sorry about that, I really am."

The most recent official information says that Iron County and Gogebic County should expect a surge sometime in June or July, he said. Some of the reasons for that include summer traffic from Illinois and southern Wisconsin where the virus is more prevalent.

Planning events for large groups during this time means there is more risk of students becoming infected, he said. A 2-to-8-week illness could prevent them from going to college, not to mention that an increase in cases could prompt a decision of the county health department to cancel the event.

The virus may restrict all kinds of things this summer, he said. It is possible that school won't even open in September so planning for an event where people are coming from out of town for a big ceremony has a lot of risk.

Genisot presented an email survey that was sent out to the 46 high school seniors and 57 of their parents. There were 19 (41%) no replies from seniors, and 27 (47%) no replies from parents.

For those who responded so far, the results as of Tuesday show that 17 (37%) of seniors and 16 (28%) of parents prefer a late July ceremony; 6 (13%) of seniors and 8 (14%) of parents prefer May 23, and 4 (9%) of seniors and 6 (11%) of parents prefer mid-August.

Kolesar said that if a second ceremony is delayed into late summer or into the fall it wouldn't be possible to have meaningful participation. The graduates would have gone on to college, the military, or to the work world and couldn't possibly attend.

"I worry about the kids not only being physically absent from graduation but also being emotionally absent," Kolesar said. "After being out of school for two or three months and trying to come back and do a graduation ceremony; I'm not sure how that would work."

Andy Laurin, school board vice president, supported the idea of a second ceremony. 

"I understand that not everyone may be able to attend a ceremony if it's held in July, September or November," he said. "But what is the harm in having a second ceremony?"

Kathy Levra, board clerk, said it would be smart to hold the virtual ceremony and then try to plan a second event when it's safer for people to gather. If the second event becomes impossible due to the virus or has such poor attendance because of the timing then the graduates will still have the virtual experience.

Kathy Saari, board treasurer, suggested that the virtual graduation have the speeches and other fanfare. The second ceremony could be just a cap and gown event.

"My feeling is they want a day together," Saari said. "It seems to me that is what they are missing."

There were 14 senior students along with a few parents at the meeting. Three of the seniors, Jack Santini, Jackson Brown and Kendahl Kivisto, expressed their preference for the traditional graduation to the board and that they preferred to wait longer for the in-person graduation.

"We just want to be together one last time," said Kivisto, noting that the semester is challenging with a lot of homework and the boredom from being home most of every day. "We want to have a say with how graduation is run instead of having it decided for us. It should be our decision as well."

After the meeting Kivisto said the seniors were satisfied with the idea of two graduations.

"I think everyone is happy with the outcome," she said. "We're just hoping that they stick with the plan and let us have the other graduation no matter what time it is in the year."

Amy Leoni attended the meeting with her daughter, Samantha, a graduating senior. She wanted to know the outcome to help with planning the graduation party.

"I just want to do anything for my daughter to make her happy," Leoni said. "I was hoping for a postponement. I know the virtual ceremony will be nice but it's not personal enough, I think, and the kids just want to be together and see each other."

Samantha Leoni said the in-person event is important to students who have already missed out on spring sports, prom and the other senior year activities. The seniors have a group on Snapchat where they talk about attending graduation ceremonies of friends and siblings in recent years and know what they will be missing.

"I am just so excited for that and it's just going to be tough not to go through that," she said.

The virtual ceremony would have individual families scheduled in half-hour increments. A photographer and videographer would capture each student receiving a diploma and the symbolic tassel turn while in a cap and gown on stage.

Each student would be photographed at a specific spot in the bleachers so a composite class photo could be created. The photos and video will be merged into one presentation with music, speeches and a student introduction from high school principal Melissa Oja. 

The video would be posted on the school's website and Facebook page on May 23 and would be sent to students in the form of a DVD at a later date.


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