PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — As high schools in Presque Isle, Easton and Washburn prepare for graduation ceremonies this weekend amid a global pandemic, administrators are trying to create a sense of normalcy while keeping within state health guidelines.
Staff said they were carefully following laws on gatherings from Gov. Janet Mills’ civil state of emergency as well as directives from the Maine Department of Education on holding socially distant graduations.
The department recommended that the 50 or fewer people in the room — students and guests alike — be seated six feet apart and wear face masks. It also suggested that students take their diplomas from a table rather than receive them from a staff member.
The most significant change may be at Presque Isle High School, where graduations are usually sprawling affairs, with up to 1,300 people packed into the school’s gym. But only a fraction of that number will be possible this year.
The high school will hold several small ceremonies for its 128 graduating seniors June 5 and 6 in the gym, with nine students graduating at a time in alphabetical order. Academic awards will be announced at the ceremony rather than the usual Academic Awards Banquet.
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic had been an unexpected occurrence for first-year Presque Isle Principal David Bartlett. Yet, as many of the seniors’ events were canceled or postponed, he felt an in-person graduation — with appropriate safety precautions — was more important than ever.
“We didn’t want to do a virtual graduation,” Bartlett said. “We wanted students to be able to walk across the stage and get their diplomas.”
Keynote speaker Yellow Light Breen — CEO of Maine Development Foundation — will not deliver his address in person. Graduating seniors will have the chance to see it on thumb drives provided to them after the ceremonies. Those thumb drives will also feature an edited video of all of the ceremonies so students can see their classmates graduate, Bartlett said.
Students will wear masks featuring the Wildcats logo throughout the ceremony courtesy of the project grad committee. The masks would be a “unique keepsake” for students in the years to come, Bartlett said.
Washburn District High School also will conduct an in-person graduation ceremony on June 5 at 7 p.m. Each of the six graduating seniors will be allowed to invite six guests, while those unable to attend will be able to watch a livestream of the ceremony.
Like other schools, Washburn has limited the number of guests and staff attending to keep numbers down: only staff required to conduct the ceremony will be involved.
Other parts of the ceremony will be conventional: scholarships will be announced as they have been in the past, but guidance counselor Diana Trams will make the announcement rather than somebody outside of school staff.
“For the most part, due to the smaller class size, we are fortunate to be able to conduct a fairly traditional graduation,” Washburn Administrative Assistant Crystal Hobbs said.
For Washburn and many schools, not all of the celebration will be in the ceremonies themselves. The school had made several efforts to celebrate its seniors, including highlighting the individual stories of graduates on Facebook and posting congratulating signs at each of their homes, Hobbs said.
The same is true for Easton Junior/Senior High School, which has organized a parade going through Easton between its two ceremonies and asked residents to “cheer them on” from their lawns and sidewalks while wearing blue and white.
Besides the parade, Easton’s 18 graduates will experience what Principal Mark Stanley referred to as a reduced form of the school’s usual graduation. There will be two graduations, occurring at 5 and 7 p.m. on Friday, June 5.
The school would announce scholarships and give out awards in what will be a shortened but fairly traditional ceremony, Stanley said. Valedictorian and salutatorian addresses will occur.
The most challenging part of the process had been restricting the number of people who could come because of the 50-person limit, Stanley said. Yet, he is excited that his school will be able to meet most of the standard hallmarks of graduation during this difficult time.
“We’ll come up with a ceremony that is meaningful and personal,” he said.
Not all of the schools in the Presque Isle area will conduct in-person ceremonies. Fort Fairfield High School and Central Aroostook High School are both doing drive-in ceremonies. Ashland will conduct two in-person ceremonies for its graduates in a manner similar to Easton.