Lawn signs, drive-in graduations: How Vermont schools are sending off their high school seniors

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As the class of 2020 prepares to enter the work force the number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits since the coronavirus pandemic has swelled to nearly 39 million. Recent graduates are facing the crisis with optimism. (May 21) AP Domestic

The last few months of high school did not go the way graduating seniors imagined. 

But Vermont schools and communities have rallied around seniors, finding creative ways to honor them during the pandemic. Graduates are preparing to go forth with lessons in adaptability and altruism.

Communities of Colchester, Milton, Essex, South Burlington and others have posted the pictures or names of graduates as a way to recognize their achievement. And drive-in graduations ensure this time, though apart for social distancing, remains special.

South Burlington senior yard signs

In South Burlington, senior picture lawn signs were delivered to homes of each of the more than 250 graduates.

“They actually kept a secret from us. We didn’t know what was happening,” South Burlington senior Mia Harton said.

Harton was on a Zoom call with her adviser, who happens to be school principal Patrick Burke, when he surprised them with a picture of the signs in front of the school.  

Burke said it has been fun coming up with creative ways to celebrate seniors; this particular idea turned out to be a larger undertaking than expected. Beltrami Photography spent many hours designing each sign from senior pictures already approved to be in the yearbook. Senior parents helped with sorting, labeling and distribution. And the school’s director of operations used transportation software to create routes the six faculty members would drive to deliver the signs to each student’s home.

More: How are Vermont colleges graduating the class of 2020? A look at online commencements

Delivering 60 signs himself, Burke coaxed his college-aged son to drive while they spent the better part of two days making stops to students outside South Burlington.

“We drove the family minivan all over Franklin and Grand Isle Counties,” Burke said. He added that seeing the seniors and families to whom he had grown close over the years was “just what I needed.”

Clad in cap and gown attire, Harton’s assistant principal delivered her sign. It was a special moment — they took photos together and Mia was told the school had more plans for them including graduation.

“Just knowing the faculty is working so hard is really sweet,” Harton said.

Graduation — one for the history books

South Burlington has announced it will have a live graduation ceremony on its original date, June 12. 

Burke said feedback from families drove their decision to maintain the date and do an in person event. The plans are for a drive-in style ceremony at the fairgrounds in Essex Junction.

Burke said there will be a big screen and some pre-produced multimedia but they are hoping most of the speakers — four of the five are students — will be able to give their speech live at a podium on-site.

It is important the ceremony maintain many elements of the traditional program, he said.

Essex High School and Champlain Valley Union High School are splitting the rental cost for the weekend. Each of the three schools will have its own graduation ceremony on either June 12 or June 13.

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Julie Pidgeon, a parent, said in an email, “I am sad at the loss of so many rites of passage; I am proud of the sacrifice my son and his classmates are making to keep people safe; I am grateful that the school and community are recognizing the kids to let them know we see them, we appreciate their sacrifice, and we are going to celebrate them — even if it’s 6 feet away and behind a mask.” 

Harton has taken the event change in stride, saying she and her classmates have joked “we’re gonna be in the history books.” It provides a unique experience that will be fun to retell one day.

“We’re the class that had graduation in our cars — something to brag about,” she said.

Challenges build character

Seniors have met the challenges before them and “really not complained,” according to Burke. 

“I’ve seen our kids shut themselves down at the most social time of your life.” Burke said, “I’ve seen them do that for the benefit of the community.” 

He has been heartened by the way students have taken on the responsibility of protecting their neighbors and the efforts some have made as essential workers, taking jobs in grocery and convenient stores because they were healthy enough to do so.

“That’s something I’ll never forget about 2020,” Burke said.

“These graduates are the future, and they have been tested in ways no one could have predicted. Their resilience gives me hope, ” Pidgeon said.

Contact April Barton at abarton@freepressmedia.com or 802-660-1854. Follow her on Twitter @aprildbarton.

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