High schools around New Orleans are getting creative to celebrate seniors as traditional  graduation ceremony plans hang in limbo amid a statewide “stay-at-home order” and social distancing rules to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

As coronavirus cases began to grow in Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards closed school campuses March 13. His current school closure order is in effect until the end of the academic year. 

Edwards’ stay at home order — which prohibits large gatherings — expires at the same time. But it’s unclear exactly what will happen next. 

Certain large gatherings are allowed. For now, the state is allowing outdoor religious ceremonies with larger crowds to be held, provided they have crowd managers enforcing social distancing guidelines. But the Louisiana Department of Education has advised schools to hold virtual graduation ceremonies or delay in-person ceremonies until later this summer. Meanwhile, if cases rise or spike in the state, Edwards could impose a stricter order. And even as the state begins to reopen, restrictions to keep the virus from spreading rapidly, such as reduced building capacity limits and mask requirements, will likely remain in place.  

The majority of graduations were planned between the middle and the end of this month. Now, many schools are planning a variety of events, such as car parades and solo diploma presentations, that aim to celebrate seniors while keeping students, families and staff safe. 

A few schools plan to open their doors in late May or early June to let seniors cross the stage. John F. Kennedy High School, New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School and Lusher Charter School are hosting variations of this.

“Our seniors have had so much taken from them and we wanted to give something back. The symbolic nature of hearing your name called and walking across the stage for graduation is too meaningful to let pass,” Kennedy’s charter group board president Raphael Gang wrote in an email. “We believe this is the best way to honor our graduates responsibly.”

At Kennedy, which faced a graduation scandal last spring, each senior can invite up to six family members to attend. Each student will have a set time slot, which are spread out over the first three days of June, Gang wrote. 

School leaders at Warren Easton Charter High School and InspireNOLA’s three high schools — Eleanor McMain Secondary School, McDonogh 35 Senior High School and Edna Karr High School — are hoping to hold full ceremonies later in the summer. That possibility was something NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. acknowledged early on. His daughter is a senior at Easton. 

“I know it’s very, very difficult for them,” he said in a March Orleans Parish School Board meeting, specifically addressing graduations and other senior activities. “It may not happen on that day but we can tell you we are going to celebrate with you as soon as we get the clear.”

Easton’s principal has set a date of July 24 at the University of New Orleans Lakefront Arena. InspireNOLA’s CEO Jamar McKneely said the charter group is looking at July or August. The schools are holding other senior week activities and celebrations this week. 

Other schools, like KIPP New Orleans Schools, have yet to make final plans.

“Given these very different circumstances, our schools are working to find creative ways to celebrate our graduating seniors for all of their hard work,” KIPP New Orleans spokesman Curtis Elmore wrote in an email this week.

He said the charter group, which runs Frederick A. Douglass High School and Booker T. Washington High School, has recognized students on social media and given out celebratory yard signs. 

“However, we are largely still in the planning phases as we standby for what our City and State Officials’ plans are for opening our state,” Elmore wrote.

From preschool to high school, other schools are holding parades or drive-through graduations. 

At New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School, known as Sci High, a May 27 graduation will be live-streamed and packaged together later, according to spokeswoman Heather Harper. The location is yet to be determined, but “students will still get the opportunity to walk the stage to collect their diploma while taking into account social distancing,” Harper said. 

At Lusher Charter School, seniors will have “graduation kits” dropped off at their homes that include car window markers, decorations, poster board, and cap and gown, Harper said. Then, on May 23, they will have a virtual commencement followed by a car “stroll” that passes by other families’ houses and the schools’ campuses.

“We have developed a route and will be calling on all families, staff and students to decorate their homes and cheer on the Class of 2020 as our graduates pass by over 250 Lusher homes, the Willow Campus, and the Freret Campus,” Harper said. “The Class of 2020 will finish the stroll at Lusher High School where administration and staff will be on hand out to give out diplomas individually. Graduates will walk across the stage, receive their diploma, and turn their tassel. Graduates and their families can then head back home to celebrate with one another.”

If possible, Harper wrote, the school will hold an in-person graduation later in the summer and look into holding prom.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...