Parents not willing to concede graduation to pandemic

Planned PWHS parade is fine but a summer ceremony should be planned, they tell board

During last year's graduation ceremony in the Port Washington High School gym, (from left) Jacob Lippe, Caitlin Luib and Olyvia Martinez showed off their diplomas. The school is planning a June 7 car parade to mark this year's commencement because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but parents are asking that the school district also schedule a summer ceremony. Press file photo
Ozaukee Press staff

Parents unwilling to concede pomp and circumstance to the coronavirus pandemic called in to a Port Washington-Saukville School Board meeting held via video conference Monday to tell officials that while a Port High graduation parade is fine, it should not be a substitute for a more traditional commencement even if that ceremony cannot be held on the June 7 graduation date.

“The parade is a wonderfully nice touch, but a ceremony is what a majority of students and parents want even if it is at a later date,” Deanna Karrels, whose daughter is a senior, told the board. 

Jodi Dowe, whose daughter is also graduating, said, “The kids need more closure with their friends, maybe even with just groups of 50 at a time. 

“To take away their opportunity to walk across the stage will hurt.”

Grappling with how to celebrate graduation when schools are shuttered and mass gatherings prohibited, Port Washington High School announced last week it plans to host a downtown graduate parade on graduation day, Sunday, June 7.

As the plan stands now, seniors, each in their own car, would stage at the high school and possibly on Holden Street, then the procession of as many as 200 cars would drive through downtown where family and friends would cheer the Class of 2020.

At the end of the parade route, Principal Eric Burke would hand graduates their diplomas as they drive by. They would then head home to watch a graduation video that features speeches from administrators, a commencement address delivered by the valedictorian and the class farewell. Graduates will be introduced as their photos are shown.

The graduation video will also include a message from Burke’s classmate and fellow 1986 Port High graduate Mike Hess, a NASA manager who oversees commercial space missions.

Burke said last week the school still wants to host a ceremony at some point, but if that’s all it plans and summer comes and goes and gatherings are still not safe, it will have done nothing to mark the milestone in the lives of its seniors. 

“A parade on graduation day will offer a little closure for seniors,” he said. “It’s not perfect, but it will certainly be memorable.”

But concerned a parade will preclude a future ceremony, parents asked the board Monday to set a date in summer for a more traditional ceremony.

“To receive a diploma through a car window is not the most creative and thoughtful way to do this,” Alicia Bornhofer, the mother of a senior, said. 

Rachel Linstroth, whose daughter is graduating, said, “I don’t like it (a parade) being the only thing that signifies their graduation.”

Some parents suggested that instead of the typical commencement in the high school gym a summer ceremony be held on the football field where students would have room to spread out and parents could gather in the end zones. That, Linstroth said, promises to be safer than a parade that attracts crowds. 

“We’re going to have 1,000 of us crammed together on the sidewalks,” she said. “I feel like there would be a whole lot more room to social distance on the football field.”

But administrators said the Wisconsin Department of Health Services has advised school districts not to plan on holding graduation ceremonies of any size throughout the summer. 

“We get daily updates from health officials, and we have no intention of going outside their direction,” Supt. Michael Weber said. 

Burke said the district bears responsibility for the safety and wellness of students, and that, according to health officials, may be difficult to protect in gatherings of any size. 

“If the school district brings people together, we’re responsible for their health and safety,” he said. “Even if we would have groups of just 50 it might not be safe.”

But board member Brian McCutcheon said he’s concerned about the safety of those who turn out to watch the parade.

“I think the parade is a good idea, but we’re bringing together a large group of people,” he said. “I don’t know how we can do this. 

“I care about the students and I care about the parents who are to be packed downtown.”

Burke said the school’s first responsibility is to the safety of its students, and because they will be in separate cars the parade is among the safest alternatives to a conventional graduation ceremony. The Washington Ozaukee Public Health Department and Port Washington Police Department have signed off on the parade, he noted. 

And although other school districts have set August graduation dates, that doesn’t mean they’ll be able to hold ceremonies, Burke, who is leaving Port High at the end of June to become the superintendent of the Rhinelander School District, said. 

“Some superintendents are setting dates but they know they’ll probably have to be canceled,” he said. 

Board member Sara McCutcheon said she favors holding the parade as planned and scheduling some sort of ceremony for August. 

The board directed administrators to select an August date and submit it for consideration at a future meeting.

The June 7 parade will go on. 

“We can do something on June 7 that will be meaningful,” Weber said. “If we wait until August, there’s no guarantee we’ll be able to do anything.”


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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