A tight cluster of caps taking flight — an iconic image of a pre-pandemic graduation. This year’s graduation celebrations, however, will more likely be remembered for the clusters of faces on screens and cars on parade.
Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) held a televised “eGraduation” that aired live on May 30, and was rerun on May 31, to celebrate the more than 8,000 PGCPS high school graduates. The commencement speaker was Academy Award-nominated actress Taraji P. Henson, who graduated from Oxon Hill High School in 1988. Other guest alums included R&B singer Kenny Lattimore, radio host/comedian Joe Clair, NFL cornerback Joe Haden and local news anchor Taylor Thomas. Valedictorians from each PGCPS high school addressed their classmates, and the names of seniors scrolled during the broadcast.
“I wanted a celebration that would feature other graduates who understand what it means to be Prince George’s County Public Schools-proud,” PGCPS CEO Dr. Monica Goldson said in an announcement of the virtual event. “I know that there is nothing that can replace walking across the stage, … but I hope our students feel our love and pride for all they have accomplished.”
PGCPS also set up a website showcasing senior photos from each PGCPS high school, along with photos from college signing days.
According to Northwestern High School Principal Dr. E. Carlene Murray, her staff also sent their seniors “congratulatory videos and words of encouragement.” When asked about her thought process about how to celebrate Northwestern’s approximately 440 graduates, Murray explained, “It was and is extremely important to me that all members of the Northwestern High School Community remain safe and healthy.”
Eleanor Roosevelt High School (ERHS) asked its seniors to contribute their favorite photos for use in a Class of 2020 video and held a virtual awards assembly on June 3, according to the school’s website.
Other area high schools celebrated their graduating seniors, as well. DeMatha Catholic High School held three virtual events honoring graduates: a Mass on May 27, an awards ceremony June 3, and a graduation on June 5. And after the ceremony, 40 faculty and staff delivered diplomas and awards in special Class of 2020 DeMatha memory boxes to the homes of the school’s almost 200 graduates.
“The educational philosophy at DeMatha is primarily built on the establishing of relationships between faculty and students. The better we know each other, the easier teaching and learning will be,” wrote Father James Day, president of DeMatha, in an email. “Our decision to hand-deliver the diplomas and any awards earned by our graduates is to reinforce that faculty/staff and students and families are united under the banner of DeMatha Catholic High School, and in a sense it was one family member helping another.”
Chelsea School, which serves students in grades 5-12 with learning differences, had seven graduates this year. The school celebrated them with a virtual graduation on June 5 which featured pre-recorded speeches from staff, teachers and each graduate. At the end of the event, participants were given time to speak about each graduate, creating “an open community celebration, where community members who are viewing the video can offer their congratulations — just sort of a show of love,” said Head of School Frank Mills in a June 1 interview.
Chelsea School’s graduates helped shape the graduation, and, while some were initially skeptical about having a virtual event, over time they appreciated its potential. “I think what’s most important for the kids is to have that shared moment with the people that fought alongside them to get them into the school,” noted Mills.
For Mills, the goal of Chelsea School’s graduation events, including shout-outs to seniors posted on the school’s Facebook page, was simple. “When it comes down to this stuff, my goal is to get tears out of people,” he said with a laugh.
Many high schools are hoping to provide in-person celebrations later on, either during the summer or fall. James noted that DeMatha would hold an event “when the county restrictions have been amended, so that all of our graduates and their parents could be together to celebrate this milestone in their academic life.” ERHS anticipates holding its senior prom in late July at Camelot by Martins, a venue in Upper Marlboro. The Chelsea School is aiming to have a fall party and will feature a rereading of graduate speeches — this time, live and in-person.
And how are local families celebrating their graduates? Edmonston resident Meredith Massey said her daughter, Zosia, is a 2020 graduate of ERHS’s science and technology program. Massey wrote in an email, “We are having a little drive-by parade — a tour of sorts with a few other ERHS and Northwestern families and then a Zoom open house for friends and family to (virtually) stop by and wish her congratulations.” In a follow-up interview, Massey said that cars and bikes drove by their yard on May 30 to congratulate Zosia. “People drove by, honking their horns and throwing candy. It was very festive.” According to Massey, at the end of the day’s events, her daughter came to a realization, saying, “I guess graduations are kind of a big deal.”
The City of Hyattsville celebrated all of its 2020 graduates, from kindergarten through high school, with fun and festivities including a mobile celebration with city council members, city staff and officers with the Hyattsville City Police Department. The city also provided lawn signs honoring 2020 grads and compiled a virtual yearbook that was posted on social media.
“Celebrating milestone achievements of our young people is vitally important. Young people are adaptive and resilient, and they are missing out on so much: their academic, social, and emotional learning, their routine, their friends, and their unique ways of interacting with the world around them,” said Mayor Candace Hollingsworth in an email. “This celebration is just one way that we hope to remind our young residents that we value them and their accomplishments.”