'It's a family event': Edmonton grads embrace the outdoors to hold graduation ceremonies with family looking on

“Graduation isn’t just about the grad, it’s a family event. It’s a very important milestone for family”

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Some of Edmonton’s first graduates to cross the stage in 2021 have come up with creative ways to celebrate the moment with family while following COVID-19 public health orders.

While last year the pandemic spelled the abrupt end for most traditional ceremonies, 2021’s grads had the benefit of experience and time to come up with ways to mark the occasion together.

On Friday, Archbishop MacDonald High School used the parking lot outside the Expo Centre to host a drive-in style ceremony complete with multiple large screens projecting what was happening on the stage at the front.

Families remained safely distanced in vehicles watching as each of the more than 300 graduates was brought from the vehicle to the stage via golf cart to be honoured.

“I think the restrictions kind of helped us be more creative and I think in the future, once everything opens up again, they can have even more ideas,” Meghan Dumanski, president of the school’s graduate council told Postmedia the day before the event.

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“I feel like this can really help with being more creative rather than sticking to the status quo, which is really what happened as everyone just got quite generic with how a grad was supposed to look.”

A graduation ceremony is projected on a giant screen during Archbishop MacDonald High School’s drive-in graduation ceremony, at the Edmonton EXPO Centre parking lot Friday June 4, 2021. The unorthodox ceremony was in response to COVID-19 health restrictions.
A graduation ceremony is projected on a giant screen during Archbishop MacDonald High School’s drive-in graduation ceremony, at the Edmonton EXPO Centre parking lot Friday June 4, 2021. The unorthodox ceremony was in response to COVID-19 health restrictions. Photo by David Bloom /Postmedia

At Lillian Osborne High School, the process of getting more than 600 students across the stage — which would have taken a few hours pre-pandemic — was stretched out over the entire day last Saturday.

Students booked time slots to cross an outdoor stage at the school appropriately distanced while their families watch from their cars.

Everything is being filmed, assistant principal Naveed Chaudhry said prior to the event, and will be included along with prerecorded speeches and performances as part of a complete ceremony broadcast online at the end of the month.

“We have an opportunity to share and do this with families as participants, where they get a chance to see their children walk the stage,” he said.

Organizing graduations during a pandemic came with its own unique set of challenges. The events are planned and booked months in advance but those making decisions couldn’t know for sure exactly what restrictions would be in place by the time the big day came.

Pre-COVID-19, Lillian Osborne would have its graduation commencement at the Jubilee Auditorium and a banquet at the Edmonton Convention Centre. Chaudhry said organizers could tell months ago that whatever they did would have to be smaller and outside.

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Archbishop MacDonald’s grad committee chair Ernie Cavaliere said the the provincial COVID-19 restrictions kept changing and there weren’t a lot of definitive early answers in terms of what exactly a graduation could look like.

“So even though we had a year to plan, we didn’t have our final plans in place until the last (Alberta Premier) Jason Kenney announcement, which said, now we’re having Stampede and open for business,” he said.

“So everything was constantly moving. ”

‘Graduation isn’t just about the grad’

Kenney announced in May that Alberta would begin lifting COVID-19 restrictions at the beginning of June based on the percentage of the eligible population that has at least one dose of a vaccine. If the vaccine rollout continues as planned all restrictions could be lifted by the end of June.

But both Cavaliere and Chaudhry said it wasn’t possible to suddenly push the grads into July on the hope for a restriction-free event.

Cavaliere said they didn’t want to have to quickly organize a lesser event.

“This is probably, even then to be honest, the biggest event we could do. So why change it?”

A family takes photos from their car during Archbishop MacDonald High School’s drive-in graduation ceremony, at the Edmonton EXPO Centre parking lot Friday June 4, 2021. The unorthodox ceremony was in response to COVID-19 health restrictions.
A family takes photos from their car during Archbishop MacDonald High School’s drive-in graduation ceremony, at the Edmonton EXPO Centre parking lot Friday June 4, 2021. The unorthodox ceremony was in response to COVID-19 health restrictions. Photo by David Bloom /Postmedia

While many students are feeling mixed emotions about ending their high school experience without the standard parties and banquets, Chaudhry said there is excitement about having a dedicated event with their families this year.

“Graduation isn’t just about the grad, it’s a family event. It’s a very important milestone for family,” he said.

“And so really, I think our kids are excited, I think our families are excited, to have the opportunity to have a staged event.”

ajoannou@postmedia.com

twitter.com/ashleyjoannou

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