For Atlanta’s 2020 Jewish graduates, there’s still a lot of pomp in their senior send-off, but they are also victims of extreme pandemic-induced circumstance.
The result was that planning graduation and senior recognitions in a global health crisis bred innovation and ingenuity in Atlanta’s private and public schools with Jewish students.
From “drive-thru” parades in which students and their families remained in their decorated cars, to 20 days of honoring seniors, including a virtual prom outfit reveal and “Friday Night Lights” athletic field light display, finishing high school in Atlanta this year has been anything but standard practice.
While some schools opted for the drive-thru or drive-in parades, pickups of caps and gowns, yearbooks and photo-taking opportunities – not to mention virtual graduations – others stuck to their guns when planning in-person ceremonies – with restrictions. A few schools combined those options for a multi-faceted commemoration.
For instance, on May 3, The Weber School had a senior commitment day drive-thru celebration in which the grads drove through the school’s parking lot announcing their intended college or gap year plans while faculty and staff stood by their parked cars waving and greeting them from a distance.
“This is a part of a larger effort to celebrate our seniors in a safe and socially distanced way,” Julie Crow, Weber’s director of marketing and community outreach, told the AJT.
Still, Weber, like some other schools in Atlanta, is not letting a global pandemic stand in the way of the big day.
On May 15, Head of School Rabbi Ed Harwitz sent a graduation update to seniors and their parents that the ceremony would be held June 7 on The Weber School campus.
Harwitz explained that while maintaining appropriate and safe social distancing, “each student will be called to the podium individually in cap and gown, turn their tassel and receive the personal moment of recognition and celebration that they deserve. Students who prefer not to receive their diploma in this manner will still be announced and recognized with their name and picture on our projection screens.”
A few Atlanta Jewish day schools are holding out for an in-person graduation. Yeshiva Ohr Yisrael of Atlanta doesn’t finish the school year until June 28, which is also the tentatively planned graduation day for its 18 senior boys, according to chief financial officer Beruriah Sawyer.
The six graduating girls of Temima, the Richard & Jean Katz High School for Girls, didn’t want a Zoom graduation as was originally planned for June 11, said administrator Lora Fruchtman. At press time, plans called for a graduation later in the summer. “We wanted to make it special for them and are still considering all our options.”
At the Atlanta Jewish Academy, the 22-member Class of 2020 decided as a group to delay their traditional graduation until early August, before some head off to colleges and others to seminaries/yeshivot for a gap year in Israel, said Franeen Sarif, executive director of AJA and high school team leader.
The students are hoping it will work out, Sarif said. “If it is not possible, the students came up with different ideas” to honor their achievement, she said. Those include having a “drive-by” graduation in the senior parking area, where the students have their personal decorated parking spot, spaced 6 feet apart, the distance of separation recommended by health officials. The idea is that each car would parade through the parking lot beeping their horns and showing signs of support, Sarif said. “That’s the last resort.”
Most of the seniors “have been together for 13 and 14 years. A few came in ninth grade, but the rest started our school together as 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds. They have grown with the school and with one another. … It’s sad for everybody.”
On their final day of classes May 15, the school organized a Zoom Senior Send Off with hundreds in attendance to celebrate the Class of 2020 with speeches, videos and photo montages.
AJA volunteers also planned a virtual Atlanta Jewish “Academy Awards” May 27. Instead of the fancy dress of the usual student awards, seniors were asked to represent different movie themes, Sarif said. They will receive a “swag bag” in the mail with props centered around the theme of the night.
Outside the box ideas are also on tap for high schools in Fulton County, according to Brian Noyes, chief communications officer for Fulton County Schools.
“Some schools are holding ‘drive-thru’ celebrations; others are creating scheduled, videotaped opportunities for graduates to walk across the stage in cap and gown to receive their diploma; some are planning a ‘drive-in’ style ceremony where graduates and their families gather, in their cars, for an off-site celebration; and other schools are choosing professionally videotaped, virtual celebrations that feature each graduating senior and applaud the Class of 2020’s promising future.”
Meanwhile, “many schools also are in discussion with parent groups on ways to hold a large group celebration at a later date once crowd size restrictions ease,” Noyes added.
“We want every senior to know when they finish school we recognize and appreciate them for their accomplishments,” he told the AJT.
DeKalb County Schools disclosed two graduation ceremony options. In-person ceremonies were originally moved from May to June, but now the ceremony will either be virtual or a “hybrid face-to-face” with seniors and staff only, the district reported.
In announcing the new options May 8, the district said it wanted to satisfy the desires of students for a face-to-face ceremony and “provide proper closure to the school year and celebrate this important milestone for the Class of 2020.”
The two options are:
• Virtual graduation ceremonies the week of June 15-20, staggered throughout the day.
• Face-to-face graduation dates to be determined in July or August, depending on health guidance at that time.
Seniors were to receive their yearbooks, caps and gowns and other items during senior week May 11-15 “as the seniors participate in celebratory virtual activities.”
Seniors who qualified officially graduated May 15, the last day of school, and received their diplomas May 21. A graduation ceremony is set for Aug. 7 for summer graduates and those unable to attend virtually in June.
Cobb County schools postponed graduation ceremonies to be held this month.
“Both virtual and physical graduation alternatives are being considered, and an update will be communicated by June 1,” according to the district’s Cobbcast.
“Our high school seniors have been particularly impacted by missing senior trips, final performances and games, and their senior prom. … While we do not know what public health guidance will allow for over the next weeks and months, we do know we will recognize and honor the graduating class of 2020 in a memorable way.”
Gwinnett County schools will have virtual graduations May 20-23 and in-person graduation ceremonies July 13-19 “should conditions allow,” the district reported on its website.
“Due to the effects of the global pandemic, this year’s seniors were forced to endure a difficult and unusual ending to their high school careers, which makes their accomplishments even more impressive and worthy of celebration,” the school district stated in a May 12 release.
CEO and Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks added, “The COVID-19 pandemic may have changed where and how this year’s senior class completed their high school career, but it cannot take away all that they have accomplished.”