ARLINGTON, Va. — Graduations are back.
This spring, all four of the Arlington diocesan Catholic high schools plan to have in-person, outdoor graduations on their football fields. After pandemic safety measures necessitated virtual ceremonies last year, school communities are looking forward to the commencement festivities.
Joseph Vorbach, diocesan superintendent of schools, sees the in-person celebrations as a sign of better things to come.
“In-person graduations are a mark of the resilience of the graduates,” he said. “And of hope for a continued gradual return to the norms and traditions of school life going forward.”
“There is great excitement that we can have graduation in person,” said Kathleen McNutt, head of school for Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, Virginia.
But there is some worry over the logistics, too, she said. In the event of rain, schools planned to move their ceremonies indoors with contingency plans that range from decreasing the number of guests to livestreaming the ceremonies to guests seated in various parts of the schools.
“There’s anxiety on the administrative side in terms of the weather. It’s almost like planning for a wedding,” said McNutt. “We want this to be just right for these students.”
Though they did their best to recognize the accomplishments of seniors last year, it just wasn’t the same, she told the Arlington Catholic Herald, the diocesan newspaper.
“So much was missed last year, certainly for the class of 2020 but for us as a school community,” she said. “Commencement exercises — they seal and finalize the school year where we’re celebrating academic success for our students and sending them on.
“It was a reminder of how important those opportunities are, not just from a celebratory perspective but from a faith perspective, that we gather and share gratitude for God and his blessings.”
As with the other high schools, St. Paul VI Catholic High School in Chantilly, Virginia, will allow four guests per graduate at an outdoor ceremony. Other senior traditions are continuing with modifications. The baccalaureate Mass will be celebrated at the school. There will be an outdoor leadership awards dinner for seniors and another for juniors.
The school will still have college shirt day, where seniors can wear a shirt with the logo of the college they’ll attend in the fall.
Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington has a tradition of taking a panoramic photo of the seniors on the football field in the shape of the year they graduate. But this year, they’ll be spread out a lot farther than usual, said Boomer Buckreis, activities director.
For the past year, the seniors haven’t seen half of their classmates because the student body was split into two cohorts to allow for social distancing. But the school is planning a senior week to allow all of them to attend together.
“We’ll have time for adoration and reflection, a Spikeball tournament. They’ll sign senior yearbooks. We’ll have a cookout (and) they’ll sign each other’s white (senior) polo shirts,” said Buckreis.
Instead of the traditional river cruise prom night, seniors will have a chance to dress up in tuxedos and dresses at a dinner hosted at the school. After dinner, “there’ll be about four different places throughout the campus where they’ll be music playing and lounge areas where students will be able to be together,” said Buckreis.
Sadly, there won’t be dancing. “We’re telling them to stand 6 feet apart and dance with their eyes,” said Buckreis.
Seniors at St. John Paul the Great Catholic High School in Potomac Shores, Virginia, had prom May 1 at Marine Corps Base Quantico. “Students rotated in groups to eat, dance and take a mask break on the back patio and 80% of (the) class attended,” said Diana Tillotson, assistant to the head of school. As with some of the other high schools, John Paul also planned to livestream its graduation ceremony.
Across the country, students at Catholic high schools likewise looked forward to in-person commencement ceremonies, many outdoors — albeit with precautions, such as limiting the number of guests per student and maintaining social distancing and other safety protocols, and providing livestreaming of events as well.
For outdoor ceremonies, contingency plans were set, too, in the event of rain.
In the Chicago Archdiocese, Catholic high schools are renting professional sports venues for graduation this year, and others will use their own outdoor fields. Others are carefully planning how to arrange the graduates in indoor spaces, often with the ceremony livestreamed to family members elsewhere.
Whatever it takes, school leaders said, this year’s senior classes will have graduation ceremonies, and they will go through them together, school leader told the Chicago Catholic archdiocesan newspaper.
Kathryn Baal, principal at Chicago’s Marist High School, said when the school surveyed the seniors to find out what they wanted from a graduation ceremony, “their No. 1 priority was to be together.”
“They want to be with their friends and they want to be with the people who shaped them throughout their four years of high school,” she said.
Marist planned to gather its graduating class and guests at Soldier Field. The large venue that will allow the 377 seniors to each invite six guests, something that would not be possible at Marist’s athletic stadium, under state and local public health guidelines.
De La Salle North Catholic High School in Portland, Oregon, planned to hold a drive-through ceremony, but four other Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of Portland were planning some kind of in-person ceremonies: Jesuit High School and St. Mary’s Academy in Portland in Portland, Valley Catholic in Beaverton and La Salle Prep in Milwaukie.
At the High School of St. Thomas More in Champaign, Illinois, in the Peoria Diocese, the mortarboards of the class of 2021 may have been tossed to record heights at graduation May 15, fueled by the joy the seniors felt to be able to graduate as a class with family members present.
That joy was shared by faculty, staff, and guests — including Coadjutor Bishop Louis Tylka, who celebrated a baccalaureate Mass the previous evening at St. Matthew Church.
“I know it’s been a real challenging year as we navigate all of the COVID stuff,” the bishop said at the close of Mass. “It’s been a challenge for us all, but we’ve persevered and we’ve had a good year nonetheless.”
In his homily, Tylka repeatedly reminded the graduates that, like the apostles, “you have been chosen” to love and follow Jesus.
“Who knows where you will go? Who knows, but God, what is in store for you,” he said. “But what we do know is that through the gift of your Catholic education you have been invited into a deeper relationship with Jesus. Know that God is always with us.”