Pandemic won't stop graduation for Sauk Prairie seniors, but the ceremony will look different
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Pandemic won't stop graduation for Sauk Prairie seniors, but the ceremony will look different

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When school districts around Wisconsin closed their doors mid-March amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, administrators found themselves in unchartered waters. Technology has long been used as a method of learning in education. Despite the advances in technology, some events – such as high school graduation—are best experienced in person.

The Sauk Prairie School District is devising a graduation ceremony that might not be typical, but will nevertheless be memorable. Approved during its May 18 meeting, board members agreed May 29 will be the district’s official graduation day. A traditional graduation ceremony held within the confines of the athletic fields behind the high school has been favored in the past. This year, though, families will have to pack into vehicles to see their student graduate.

School Board President Richard Judge said district administration began developing secondary plans for graduation with the hope a traditional ceremony could be pulled off by July 24. After consulting with the Sauk County Public Health Department, the district soon learned a large event like graduation still wasn’t likely.

“It became clear this year’s graduation ceremony would have to look very different,” Judge said. “With social distancing orders and the fact our bleachers can only hold 750 people max, only a relatively small amount of people would be able to attend.”

Sauk Prairie High School Principal Chad Harnisch said the overall plan wasn’t too difficult to construct, as it follows one of the methods approved by the state Department of Public Instruction. But the details are another story.

“I think there will continue to be challenges over the next 10 days that we will have to address,” Harnisch said. “It’s those yet unseen challenges that I find to be the most difficult.”

The plan has been vetted by the DPI, the Sauk County Public Health Department, as well as local law enforcement.

In a nutshell, each graduating student will be allowed one vehicle at the ceremony. Vehicles will enter the high school parking lot in four rows, and will be instructed to follow temporary chalk lines pointing toward the building. A large stage will host a few live speakers, while others will be pre-recorded.

As high school principal, Harnisch will be among the speakers. He said his message will likely reflect “the lessons of the moment.”

“I would anticipate I will focus a little bit on what was lost and a lot on what we have gained,” Harnisch said. “Specifically, this great opportunity to work on and practice resiliency.”

Music for the event will also be pre-recorded. Radio station WRPQ 99.7 MAX FM out of Baraboo will broadcast the event, so revelers can tune in to the ceremony simply by turning the car’s radio to 99.7.

Once the staged events are complete, cars will stream through the lot toward the exit in four lanes of traffic. Because of the traffic flow pattern, students are being asked to ride in the right passenger seat.

“As they pull through the controlled exit, students will have the chance to hop out, take a short walk to a station where they will be presented with their diploma holder,” Judge said. “They will be sent their diplomas later through the mail.”

Judge said families will have the chance to take photos of their graduate from their vehicles. Photographers will be on hand to take professional photos of students holding their diplomas right after they are presented.

“We wanted to be able to have something for the students that is as close to normal as it can be, given the circumstances,” Judge said.

Details are still unfolding; the May 18 board vote allows the district to move forward with the proposed plan, which includes spending $20.20 on each graduate. Judge said there will be some additional costs for the ceremony, but funds not completely used in transportation, for example, can be transferred to the general fund and reallocated. The board approved the transfer of $4,000 toward graduation costs.

Judge said senior students will be receiving more details in the coming week from the district, and encouraged families of students to respect the new rules for graduation by remaining in their cars.

“We have to do it this way,” Judge said about enforcing social distancing. “We are trying to do something here for the kids and it is certainly going to be memorable. Hopefully it’s the only one we have to do this way. But if we have to do it again next year, we will know how to do it.”

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