How Bayridge Secondary School made a socially distanced graduation more personal

Aaron Roodhart, recent graduate and student who organized the “driveway graduation” stands in front of Bayridge’s garden with stars for each graduate written on them. Jemma Dooreleyersl/Kingstonist

Every Bayridge Secondary student to enter the doors of the school since 2012 has participated in the ceremony of touching a polished wooden tiger paw on their first day of Grade 9 and touching the paw once more, on their way across the stage of their Grade 12 graduation, to symbolize the beginning and the end of their high school career. 

This year, the tradition continues, however, it looks a little different. 

Every ten minutes, beginning on June 22 2020 to June 25, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 7 p.m., another graduate arrives with their family. The graduate follows arrows to the door of Bayridge Secondary School by themselves, where they meet administrative staff in the lobby, put on their cap and gown, and pick up their diploma and other awards from a sanitized table that no one else has touched but them. 

They then stand at the door to the vestibule, are announced by Principal Heather Highet and Vice-Principal Stephen Ward, walk in and stand next to the Bayridge crest where a podium is set up. The graduate holds their diploma while their achievements are read out for their family outside to hear. A congratulation is said, pictures are taken, they switch their grad cap tassel from one side to the other, throw the cap and touch the paw. 

They enter the school, a Bayridge Secondary student, and they exit, to the cheers from their family, staff members and friends who showed to clap from six feet away, as a graduate. 

Staff stand by and watch each student graduate, holding signs of encouragement. Jemma Dooreleyers/Kingstonist

The janitor quietly walks over to the paw and sprays it with disinfectant in preparation for the next graduate to arrive and receive the same ceremony. 

Brenda Scarlett, the head of the Global Studies department and Geography and World Issues teacher, says that she almost likes it better this way. 

“I’ve been able to have really good conservations with as many students as I possibly can as they’re graduating at a distance of course,” she said as she held a blue and orange sign that says ‘You Rock’. “I think those memories meant more to me than trying to run around and find all the students to wish them well in quick passing.” 

“I think this is almost more personal.” 

After the graduate gets to throw their cap, they are handed an orange stress ball “because they will need it for whatever life brings them next year,” and are invited to take photos in front of the garden that is decorated with blue- and orange-painted rocks and a star with each graduate’s name written on it. 

Aaron Roodhart is a Grade 12 graduate, going to McMaster University in the fall for Engineering and was one of the assembly ministers for student council this year. He and the other students on the Assemblies Team drove to each Bayridge graduate’s house to deliver a “driveway graduation” where they rolled out a red carpet and recited a speech for each person in their driveway. He says that while the circumstances are odd he has had fun. 

“It’s been nice having the time off and I’ve been able to do a lot of things like the driveway grad,” he said. “It was a really cool experience and something that we wouldn’t get to normally do.” 

“It’s an interesting time that has a lot of uncertainty but I think there is a lot of opportunity as well.” 

Although he had graduated the day before and was at the school to cheer on his friend who had just walked across the stage, he still has not processed that he is a Bayridge graduate. 

“It just kind of showed up because we had such a long break off,” he said. “All of a sudden it came and I don’t think it has really hit me.” 

According to Roodhart, the distance learning and the fact that he has not been able to see his friends for three months has made it more difficult to realize that he has graduated, and difficult to celebrate but he thinks that it will make it easier to prepare for next year. McMaster has confirmed that they are going to be closed for the fall and residence is going to be closed.

“I feel like I am just as close to my friends as I have ever been before,” he said. “I think it was almost a good test to see how we do without having to always be together and learning how to keep those connections and relationships while we are apart. I think it’s a really good practice for next year.”

On Jun. 25, 2020, a virtual graduation that looked more like a traditional convocation and was about an hour long aired on Bayridge’s YouTube channel where it remains for students, family and friends to watch.

Bayridge Secondary School was among many schools, elementary, secondary and post-secondary globally who were forced to adapt their graduation ceremonies in order to accommodate public health restrictions due to the global pandemic. The official last bell was on Jun. 29, 2020 and with plans for the fall still up in the air, Scarlett says that it is the dedication of students and support from other staff that make it easier to think about the future.

The Graduation Song (Friends Forever) by Vitamin C, blasts over the speakers on loop as each graduate enters their car, honks the horn and drives away, saying goodbye to one era and hello to a new one, shrouded in mystery.

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