High school students, parents petition for ‘real’ graduations

Lauren Luekenga walks across stage at Desert Hills High School virtual graduation, St. George, Utah, April 29, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Steven Dunham, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — More than 500 petitions have been written across America by students and parents whose dreams of a traditional graduation ceremony have been crushed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stage for the Dixie High School virtual graduation, St. George, Utah, April 29, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Steven Dunham, St. George News

The pandemic has struck all aspects of American life, and schools are no exception. Social distancing orders have forced districts to rethink graduation ceremonies, which would bring hundreds – or even thousands – of people close together and pose a risk of creating a coronavirus “hot spot.”

The alternative of holding virtual commencements has been met by pushback, with a movement of more than 550,000 signers petitioning for schools to postpone graduations until restrictions on gatherings have been lifted and it’s safe to gather for in-person ceremonies.

In Utah, five petitions have been started by local students and parents calling on their schools to postpone the ceremonies and host in-person graduations later in the year. Two of them are local: one written by parent Racheal Rasmussen to the Washington County School District and the other addressed to the Dixie High School administration and written by a Puja Patel, a Dixie High senior and 2020 Sterling Scholar award winner for business and marketing.

“While we understand having a postponed ceremony can have obstacles, we as a class, believe that those challenges would be worth tackling so we can graduate together through a proper ceremony,” Patel said in her petition.

Dixie High School graduate Sasha Gutierrez stands with flowers and balloons at the virtual graduation, St. George, Utah, April 29, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Steven Dunham

Rasmussen, whose daughter attends Hurricane High School, said in her petition that she could speak for “a lot of parents and students” in saying that waiting even as late as August for a traditional ceremony would be “far better than virtual graduation.”

“Let’s make this happen,” she wrote.

Up to this point, Washington County has been conducting virtual ceremonies, and Steven Dunham, the school district communications director, told St. George News that they have a few more plans in store for the 2020 graduates.

Dunham said the decision to not have in-person graduations isn’t up to them, it’s up to the health department.

“As much as parents want us to stand up and rebel, we can’t do that. That’s not what the school district is about,” he said. “Health department guidelines will not allow us to meet together in groups larger than 20. If we were to change to yellow, even then we couldn’t meet in groups larger than 50.”

Dunham said the district has tried their best to make the virtual graduation special, unique and exciting and also allow students to feel a sense of connection with their schools, and he said there are still a few surprises to come with the virtual graduations.

Desert Hills High School graduate Bentley Cowan points out her name on the board at the virtual graduation, St. George, Utah, April 29, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Steven Dunham, St. George News

“We hope people will recognize the amount of work that has gone into this and making it special, with the mindset that if things change before the end of June, we’ll bring everybody back if we’re allowed to,” he said. “It’s really the best of both worlds: We’re moving forward with the virtual graduations because we have to – because we can’t not celebrate these kids. That would be foolish.”

Regarding the petitions, Dunham said that a petition to the school board can’t change anything because, much like the decision to hold virtual graduations in the first place, it’s not up to the board.

“A petition isn’t going to change us because we can’t. We have to follow the rules,” he said. “So even if we were at a yellow state, without special permission from the health department, we have to follow the rules and guidelines that are set for us.”

On a brighter note, Dunham said he thought it was still encouraging to see youth take an active role in writing petitions and getting a firsthand experience of how the civic process works, even if the results don’t ultimately go their way.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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