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Facing social distancing mandates, Anchorage School District plans new ways to honor graduating seniors

The Anchorage School District last week announced it will not hold graduation ceremonies in person this school year and will instead use a variety of alternatives to honor its senior classes.

Alaska Education Commissioner Michael Johnson released a memorandum Thursday with strict social distancing guidelines outlined for graduation ceremonies. The memorandum stipulates that no more than 20 people can gather, all wearing masks and each 6 feet apart, essentially making any traditional graduation ceremony impossible.

“Graduations are significant logistical events, calling for 50-100 staff working diligently for weeks to deliver a safe and enjoyable ceremony on a regular year. Sadly, this is just not feasible this year,” Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop wrote in a district-wide email Friday.

The Anchorage School District closed its buildings in March, following a state mandate meant to curb the spread of the new coronavirus. Even though some businesses are slowly reopening, Alaska schools are closed for the rest of the school year.

“The next phase of the ‘economic opening,’ which lessens restrictions, calls for 28 days of declining COVID cases,” Bishop said. “This uncertainty is a significant constraint that we cannot ignore and is a primary reason for the present graduation plan.”

Each high school will prepare an hourlong commemorative graduation video that will be available on YouTube and include recorded speeches from seniors.

Seniors will also get graduation memorabilia boxes with letters from teachers and staff, and schools are starting social media campaigns to honor graduates across platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Graduates will also receive yard signs that they can put on their front lawn.

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“We’re just trying to give these kids that are losing out on so much as much as we can that we’re capable of doing in an online format,” West High School principal Sven Gustafson said.

Service High School senior class president Teresita Cortez is crushed that she won’t get to have a traditional graduation ceremony — something she’s looked forward to since watching her older siblings and friends graduate.

“Graduation is something that every kid expects to do and it just sucks, it really does,” Cortez said.

High school graduation was her only chance to walk across a stage in school robes and get a diploma — she won’t be going to college. Instead, Cortez will attend beauty school and join her mother to work in the family’s salon.

But Cortez said she understands the district’s in a tough position.

“They are doing their best to find an alternative and not just leaving us in the dust," Cortez said. “They’re trying to work with what they have.”

Gustafson said that West High School is searching for even more ways to honor its graduating class, including a six-month “reunion” for seniors. It will also possibly create a tile mural that includes photos of each senior in the graduating class.

Cortez has talked with her teachers and other student government members about setting up something similar to a reunion for Service High School seniors.

“I would love for the school district to somehow have a ceremony for us, whether it’s six months from now or even a year from now — just something fills the void of us not being able to have it now,” Cortez said.

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