Will Jorgensen, a senior at Portland High School, is philosophical about this year’s disruptions. He says, “You kind of have to embrace the uniqueness of being the class that didn’t have a traditional senior year.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Portland High School senior Makeda Zabot-Hall has been looking forward to a week of in-person activities like graduation, prom and a senior breakfast with her classmates in early August, a last chance to be together before the soon-to-be-graduates scatter for college and other opportunities.

None of these events has been canceled, but after news Tuesday that Maine will be extending restrictions on large gatherings – likely through the summer – Zabot-Hall said she’s come to realize the chances of in-person graduations and other end-of-the-year activities at schools has diminished.

Makeda Zabot-Hall, a senior at Portland High School, has come to realize that it’s unlikely she and her classmates will get to have an in-person graduation. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“I personally don’t think we will have in-person graduations because I don’t think schools will want to risk it,” Zabot-Hall said. “I’m not really sure (what will happen). I really want one. The last time I saw any of the kids in my class was probably a month ago or two months ago.”

Across southern Maine, school districts are rethinking their graduation plans in response to the state’s new guidance for reopening after the coronavirus forced the widespread shut downs of schools, businesses and other activities.

The plan Gov. Janet Mills released Tuesday emphasizes that a reopening needs to happen slowly. While the timeline could be adjusted, it currently “contemplates maintaining the prohibition on gatherings of more than 50 people” in July and August with no set date for when all restrictions can be lifted.

Many school districts had already come to terms with having to forgo traditional June graduation ceremonies and some planned to delay in-person celebrations until late summer. Now many are rethinking their plans again.

“I don’t imagine at this point a traditional graduation ceremony with graduates seated directly next to each other and families crammed into a space will be a possibility for anybody,” said Chris Howell, the superintendent in Windham-based Regional School Unit 14.

Windham High School’s graduation is typically held in June at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland and draws 2,500 to 3,000 people. Now, Howell said, the district is looking at other possibilities. Could graduation be held outside on athletic fields? Would an in-person ceremony be possible with the appropriate physical distancing?

The Maine Department of Education hasn’t set guidance yet for schools on graduations, but is working with health experts to talk through a number of options being discussed by superintendents, said Kelli Deveaux, a spokeswoman for the department.

In an email Thursday, she said the department has heard of drive-in theater options, of schools that are still hoping they can hold in-person ceremonies in August and others that are working on virtual options.

“We recognize that these are time-sensitive questions, so we have prioritized them in our process, and hope to provide information to school leaders very soon,” Deveaux said.

In Windham, Howell said one thing that has been clear from his discussions with students and parents is a strong preference for an in-person rather than a virtual celebration.

“One of the largest pieces of feedback we’ve gotten is, ‘Can we do some form of a ceremony for our kids?’ and specifically requests for some sort of a live ceremony,” Howell said.

In Portland Public Schools, Assistant Superintendent Aaron Townsend said the district is committed to celebrating seniors during the first week of August, though what graduation will look like has yet to be determined.

Olivia Cloutier, the senior class president at South Portland High School, says she and her classmates are trying to make the best of the situation. “It’s for the greater good, so we’re dealing with it.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The district’s three high schools have typically had large indoor graduation ceremonies at either Merrill Auditorium, the University of Southern Maine or the Cross arena, but those options appear unlikely now, Townsend said.

Instead, he said Portland is looking at outdoor venues where social distancing might be easier to implement, like athletic stadiums or drive-in theaters, or a virtual ceremony if necessary. A decision is expected by the end of May when students finish their classes.

“We’re going to try to continue to monitor (the situation) and come up with creative ideas given the guidance,” Townsend said. “We’ll maintain safety and wellness, but balance that with having some connection and closure for kids.”

Will Jorgensen, a senior at Portland High School, said that with so many disruptions already this school year, most students have come to realize that they need to be flexible.

“You kind of have to embrace the uniqueness of being the class that didn’t have a traditional senior year and look at it in that respect as opposed to looking at it like, ‘Oh no, this is terrible,'” he said.

Jorgensen, who is attending Bowdoin College in the fall, said he would be comfortable with celebrating after the pandemic is completely over. One idea would be to bundle a one-year class reunion with a graduation celebration.

“I think with circumstances as they are I totally would understand if (a traditional graduation) wasn’t a possibility,” he said. “I also think it wouldn’t be a bad thing to push it even further and really do it well.”

Gus Lappin, a senior at South Portland High School, says, “We do not want to do any virtual thing” for graduation. “I just think it would be kind of corny if that was pushed on us.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

In South Portland, parents and staff have found small creative ways to recognize seniors already, including lawn signs and social media campaigns. There’s still a longing, though, for the traditional in-person ceremony with speeches, hugs, and red and white regalia.

“As a parent, I would love to see the ceremony, the diploma and the cap and gown,” said Nicole Lappin, whose son, Gus, is a senior at South Portland High School. “The kids probably don’t need it to be that formal. They probably would just like to be able to hang out together.”

“Everyone I’ve talked to has said, ‘We do not want to do any virtual thing,'” Gus Lappin said. “I just think it would be kind of corny if that was pushed on us and it would be awkward online too.”

The leading idea for graduation right now in South Portland includes a parade of seniors and their families driving in their cars through the city, said Principal Michele LaForge, who noted that the high school is still planning on celebrating seniors on June 7, their original graduation date.

Olivia Cloutier, the South Portland High School senior class president, said while the situation is not ideal, students are trying to make the best of it.

“We’re kind of limited, but I know everyone really cares for each other and even though we’re upset by it, it’s kind of just something we have to do,” she said. “It’s for the greater good, so we’re dealing with it.”

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