The significance of high school graduation resonates with just about everyone. It can be the beginning of a lifetime of memories.
It has been a crazy timeline for everyone. Some schools have not yet graduated, but all have planned and plotted their way toward a proper senior class sendoff — in-person, virtual or some kind of combination of both.
Saint Mark’s High School is a good example. Like every other school in the Diocese of Wilmington, officials at the high school found out April 24 that schools would not reopen for in-person instruction for the remainder of the academic year. They also learned that Lou De Angelo, diocesan superintendent of schools, wanted graduation plans submitted to his office by May 15.
Let Tom Fertal, Saint Mark’s principal, paint the twists and turns of the graduation planning timeline.
“We had at least three major revisions,” Fertal said. “Early on, we made the commitment that we were going to maximize it based on what we could do. That drove our decisions.”
The first plan carved out was an imaginative, mostly virtual celebration. As of early May, no other option was available and all diocesan schools needed to get their plans approved by Michael Connelly, coordinator of safe environments in the diocese. Churches and schools were closed to limit the spread of coronavirus and no one was taking any chances.
Saint Mark’s is fortunate to have a lot of space on its campus and planned a huge stage in front of the school highlighted by a mega video screen. The drive-through model was planned to take place over several days with students arriving one-by-one in vehicles and picking up diplomas.
Circumstances began improving when some loosening of restrictions allowed for the drive-in model. This would enable everyone to drive in at once, one car per family, and graduates could be called out in groups of 10.
Then graduation organizers got another break. The state put out specific graduation parameters that allowed for an outside, seated event with people properly spaced.
“You could gather outside with up to 250 people,” said Fertal, who was aware 122 graduates, two guests, faculty and staff pushed the group up to about 400. But a clause in the regulations said it could be more than 250 if a plan was submitted and approved.
And Saint Mark’s maximized. The seating was approved as was an additional car from each family parked in the lot behind the seats where two additional TV screens had been set up.
“We were constantly communicating with parents,” Fertal said. “We let them know from Day One that we were going to maximize what we could. The parents were phenomenal. They went with the flow.”
Ultimately, on a warm and sunny day in front of the school, the seated graduates and guests finally got the tribute deserving of the Class of 2020.
“It was incredible,” Fertal said. “I had parents who had three, four kids graduate over the years tell me it was the best ever. This exceeded every expectation we had. It was the right thing to do.”