Canceled proms, online exams, celebrations that have to be postponed and an abrupt end to classes inside the high school building that has been a second home for the past four years: this is the unfortunate lot of the Class of 2020.

But administrators and other faculty members all over the archdiocese are working to make the graduation experience a special one for this year’s high school seniors. Several Archdiocese of Milwaukee high schools are opting for “virtual graduation” ceremonies that can recreate some of the feel of the traditional in-person event, while maintaining appropriate social distancing.

“The way it’s shaping up, with all of the things we’re able to do in the digital world that we live in anyway, I think we’re going to be able to make this very special and really personalized to our students,” said Michael Arendt, interim principal at St. Catherine’s High School in Racine, which has 78 graduating seniors this year. “It’s important to be able to have this and bring our communities together for graduation and give the recognition and closure to all of the students that they so richly deserve.”

Arendt said that it was after Easter that administrators at St. Catherine’s realized alternate plans were going to need to be made for graduation. “As we heard more about what other states were doing, we started to realize that we were not coming back to school this year,” he said.

Faculty members at St. Joan Antida High School in Milwaukee were a little more reluctant to make that choice. “We were in a hopeful denial mode,” said Elizabeth Lingen, principal at St. Joan Antida.

“Because we’re a smaller high school, we could kind of sit back and watch what others were doing,” added Marikris Coryell, president of the school. “Seeing others, a lot of planning had been going on, and then (restrictions) would shift again.”

But about two weeks ago, it became clear that an in-person graduation event was not going to be a possibility for SJA’s 24 graduating seniors — at least not on their planned timeline.

And so, while hopes are still high that an in-person event will be possible at a later date in the summer, teachers and staff at SJA are compiling a pre-recorded ceremony that follows the format of the traditional graduation as closely as possible.

“We’re going to make sure we really have a gangbusters commencement speaker for them, and we would like to pre-record the valedictorian and salutatorian speeches,” said Lingen. “We want to edit together a version of graduation that looks somewhat similar to the structure it would be under a normal situation.”

The plan is to release the video on a designated date and time so that seniors and their families can all have a virtual “watch party” complete with celebration kits that the school hopes to drop o in the coming weeks.

St. Catherine’s currently plans to have a combination drive-up/virtual ceremony on July 31 at the Siena Retreat Center. “Families in their cars will be able to stream the ceremony if they’re there, but they would also be able to watch and listen on their phones,” said Arendt.

St. Catherine’s is working with graduation products company Josten’s, which has produced a free Virtual Commencement Center to assist high schools and colleges in creating a customizable virtual graduation platform that works for them. Through the conferencing app Zoom, St. Catherine’s will be able to allow for up to 1,000 people to be on a single video call for their graduation event.

“We would have up to 1,000 individual licenses — basically that would be their graduation ticket,” said Arendt. Registrants will then be able to access specific links that will allow them into the event, keeping it a secure and private event.

SJA will not be able to hold its baccalaureate Mass this year — that usually takes place in conjunction with the senior luncheon and Honors Day, which have also been canceled. But
they are still holding onto hope their graduates can experience some form of in-person commencement ceremony, even if they have to wait for it.

At a recent virtual meeting of the senior class, “one thing that became very clear to us was that they appreciate the virtual plan, but they really want to make sure that at some point down the road they have a traditional ceremony together, in the way they’ve always pictured it,” said Lingen. “One of the girls got really emotional and said, ‘This isn’t just for me — this is for my whole family.’ A lot of them, maybe their parents haven’t graduated from high school, and knowing they may be one of the first ones to be able to cross the stage — they were really looking forward to having their family present for that moment,” said Coryell.

But no matter what graduation looks like, the graduates have more than earned the respect and admiration of their teachers.

“I hope that they realize how strong and resilient they are,” said Lingen. “They have come out of high school in such a unique circumstance … and I hope they see that in themselves.”

“We’re going to finish strong,” said Coryell. “It’s kind of like a race, and it might seem like nobody’s there to watch at the finish line — but they’re still going to finish this race and we are still there, even though they can’t see us. To feel us is what is important.”

St. Lawrence Seminary High School’s 42 seniors were already o -campus for their winter break when the governor’s Safer At Home order was handed down; so they never had a real chance to bid each other goodbye. Approximately 26 percent of the school’s seniors live in Wisconsin, with the remaining portion hailing from other states and countries.

“When the Safer At Home was extended to late May, we realized the students would not be able to return to campus, but it was our hope that we would be able to bring the students back to get their belongings and hold a picnic-type gathering one day and have the graduation the next,” said Francisco Sauceda, director of admissions at SLS. “As the situation continued to evolve, we decided that we wanted to honor our seniors on their scheduled graduation date. We could then re-unite later in the summer/fall to do an in-person honoring.”