Mesa Public Schools finalized plans last week for all of its high schools to host a virtual commencement ceremony for the 2020 graduating class.
Official details were expected to be sent out to parents and students on Friday while further details from the individual high schools would come in the next few weeks leading up to commencement ceremonies, the Governing Board was told last week.
“When we received the stay-at-home order from Gov. Ducey, we realized quickly we would have to change how we traditionally do graduation,” said Holly Williams, the district’s executive director of master planning and bond projects.
“I think we’ve come up with some fun ways to celebrate the graduates and some unique opportunities for individualized celebrations for the graduates. Ways that we haven’t done before,” she said.
The news was not a surprise, though many area districts have put off an announcement that is all but inevitable.
With graduation slated in about three weeks, Scottsdale Unified and Chandler Unified have still not announced plans. On the other hand, Tempe Union High School District is planning a virtual commencement this month and hoping to hold in-person commencement exercises July 18.
Mesa Public Schools has hired Vego Pictures to assist each high school with setting up the virtual ceremony. Vego is widely known for its work with American Idol and other live concerts, commercials and graduation ceremonies.
Williams said Vego’s expertise will be used to capture the tradition of each school and make it interactive.
“We are excited to see what they are going to put together,” Williams said. “Our principals have started working closely with that company as well as students will be engaged here in the next couple of weeks to plan and decide what will happen.”
Students will be able to share the link to the ceremony with family members and will be able to access it at any time in the future to watch the ceremony. Programs for each school’s graduation are still being printed and will be sent to families along with diplomas.
Some seniors are resigned to the idea of not having a traditional graduation due to COVID-19. But for others, such as Mountain View senior Deshaun Jackson, that reality still hasn’t quite set in.
Deshaun said he was looking forward to a prom and graduation and had especially hoped to be able to walk with some of his teammates from Mountain View’s football team one last time.
“It all hasn’t really hit me yet because I don’t want to think about it too much,” said Deshaun, who plans to play football at a junior college next year.
“All our lives, this is what we’ve wanted, this is what we’ve been working toward,” he added. “It sucks not being able to finish it all the way through and not to have those memories we would normally have if it weren’t for the pandemic.”
Mackenzi Stein, a senior senator for Red Mountain’s student council, shared a similar sentiment.
“Given the times, I’m just glad we even have some sort of graduation in place,” Stein said. “I was kind of sitting there and I just thought, ‘well, it’s alright, my life isn’t going to be ruined.’ But it does suck. It’s a memory all of us want to have.”
The district has also adopted other ways of honoring this year’s seniors.
Yard signs have been ordered for every senior. Each sign will be specific to the school and can either be placed in a student’s yard or window. Williams said they all have a blank space for some customization, such as the student’s name.
Williams said the signs are expected to be handed out within the next couple of weeks to all seniors. Banners celebrating the 2020 class were donated to each school by the Mesa Education Foundation.
When seniors return to drop off their school-issued devices and other items later on in May, they will see the banners on the surrounding fences of the schools.
“I think it’s great, it’s something other classes never really got,” Mackenzi said. “Given the circumstances they can’t really do anything else so even just a little bit of support with those things, I think it’s good.”
Schools have also sought a unique way to honor the 2020 graduating class. Every Thursday or Friday night at 8:20 p.m. – which, in military time is 20:20 – the stadium lights have turned on for 20 minutes and 20 seconds to honor the seniors.
This initiative has spread throughout the Valley, and Mesa schools have joined in. Mountain View, Skyline and Red Mountain began this initiative in early April. Mesa High, which recently replaced its stadium lights, joined this past Thursday. Dobson and Westwood have turned their lights on for the same duration of time every Friday.
Officials said it shows seniors how much teachers, administrators and district staff truly care for them.
“A lot of kids teachers don’t care, admin doesn’t care because we are just students,” Deshaun said, “but everything they’re doing shows how much they care about us not just as students but as young men and young women. It brings a good feeling to my heart to see everything they’re doing for us.”