APS proposes graduation alternatives from drive-in to online ceremonies

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen offers a hug to a student as she receives her diploma at a 2015 commencement ceremony. (AJC file photo)

Credit: Akili-Casundria Ramsess

Credit: Akili-Casundria Ramsess

The Atlanta school district has proposed four alternative ways to hold graduation ceremonies — from online programs to drive-in movie theater gatherings.

But first, officials want to know how high school seniors prefer to mark the occasion.

Graduation ceremonies can’t happen as planned because school buildings are closed through the end of the school year in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

There are 14 high schools within Atlanta Public Schools, including several charter schools. Graduation ceremonies had been scheduled to take place May 16-22, with most happening at Georgia Institute of Technology's basketball arena.

After the pandemic upended those plans, Superintendent Meria Carstarphen presented four options for seniors to consider. The district hasn't made a decision, but Carstarphen said she'd like to iron out plans by this week.

"My job as the superintendent is to try to get you as many good options as possible. We want you to be happy as seniors. We want your families to be happy, and we want to respect the hard work you've done over the last 13 years," she said during a Friday virtual town hall where she outlined the options.

The most creative possibility she proposed is to hold graduation ceremonies at a local drive-in movie theater. She said the idea has been vetted with state and health officials, who have said the event could take place with strict rules.

The ceremonies would take place in the evenings over a period of eight days. A video of graduation speeches could be shown on the large movie screen, and each student would be allowed to come with one carload of family members and friends.

No one would be permitted to leave their cars, and vehicles would be parked with plenty of space in between them.

The entire event would last no more than an hour and likely take place in mid- to late May.

“I think we might be able to make it special … but it will feel different and that may not make you as happy as you want to be,” Carstarphen said.

A second option would be to postpone graduation ceremonies, possibly until the end of summer or early fall, and hold them at Lakewood Stadium. The football stadium is large enough that families would be able to spread out. Graduates would have to sit on chairs with 6 feet of space around them.

Carstarphen said students would only be able to invite a limited number of guests. Also, the outdoor ceremony would likely take place during the “blistering heat” of Atlanta’s warmest period.

A third option is to wait to hold graduation ceremonies much later in the fall in a more traditional indoor venue, so long as the district could comply with social distancing and any other safety precautions that remain in place at that time.

Carstarphen cautioned that new waves of the coronavirus could still interrupt the district’s ability to hold ceremonies, even months from now.

Finally, as a fourth option, the district could conduct virtual ceremonies in May on the original graduation dates.

Carstarphen urged seniors and their families to contact their principals and share their preferences.

“If you’ve got a dog in the fight that’s the voice we need to hear, so bark loud so that we see you and we hear you,” she said.

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