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Long Island districts getting creative with high school graduation ceremonies

This year's high school graduations are bringing out

This year's high school graduations are bringing out more of a crowd as COVID-19 restrictions allow for larger gatherings. Valencia Hopkins, a senior at Uniondale High School, spoke to Newsday about what her graduation will look like this year. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca

Long Island high school seniors are hoping for a somewhat normal ending to a year that has been anything but routine.

School districts have moved their Class of 2021 graduation ceremonies to outdoor university stadiums, scheduled separate ceremonies over several days, will stream the event for those who can’t make it, and at least one is planning a drive-through commencement. Graduations for the Island's nearly 40,000 seniors typically are held in mid- to late June.

Schools this year, with COVID-19 restrictions easing, can have more than 500 attendees for outdoor graduations in large venues such as stadiums. Last year, after schools closed and classes went online, most commencements were held virtually, scheduled over multiple days or as drive-through events.

What to know

Long Island high schools have scheduled commencement ceremonies for the Class of 2021, and, with restrictions easing, can hold in-person ceremonies.

Some graduations will be held at outdoor venues at local universities, such as Hofstra and Stony Brook, where graduates can bring up to four guests. 

Schools must follow state guidance, which calls for social distancing and proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test at venues such as football fields. 

Some restrictions still remain for schools, including social distancing requirements and proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test at some outdoor events. That applies, according to the state Department of Health, to venues such football fields. Two districts, North Babylon and Lindenhurst, have written to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, elected leaders and state health officials asking for more easing of restrictions.

Lindenhurst officials tried to plan a commencement at the high school to accommodate the graduating class of more than 500 and still meet capacity requirements, but decided to book a ceremony for June 22 at Stony Brook University instead, school board vice president Ed Langone said.

"If we were able to have the restrictions lifted, we would have had an outdoor ceremony on our field," he said. "It's a little too late for that, but hopefully for other districts it is not too late."

A letter from the North Babylon Board of Education noted that graduation requirements are more restrictive than those covering bars, restaurants and sporting events. The district will host one outdoor ceremony at the high school on June 25 and provide COVID-19 testing at no cost to the more than 350 seniors before the event, Superintendent Glen A. Eschbach said. All attendees will be health-screened that day and provide contact tracing information. All will be masked, despite similar restrictions being lifted elsewhere, he said.

"It is so much more restrictive than other guidelines," he said.

Ceremonies going outdoors, to allow for guests

In Uniondale, senior Valencia Hopkins, 18, is thankful she can mark this year's occasion with friends and family. The district has scheduled an outdoor commencement to be held at Hofstra University on June 26.

"I am really looking forward to everyone's parents seeing them cross the stage in person," Hopkins said. "That really is a proud moment for our parents and teachers."

The Longwood district will host nine outdoor ceremonies for more than 750 graduates over three days at the high school. The graduates will be divided alphabetically in separate ceremonies starting June 21.

"The Class of 2021 has lost many, if not all, traditional junior and senior celebrations. Even though their celebrations are a bit different this year, we're so grateful that they now have the opportunity to enjoy senior prom and graduation," Principal Scott Schuster said in a statement.

The district has scheduled rain dates and is planning a livestream of the events as well. All attendees must be masked, and graduates can bring two guests.

Middle Country is holding two graduations at each of the district's high schools — Centereach and Newfield — so that each graduate can have two guests. The ceremonies will be as traditional as possible, the district said.

Commack High School will hold its ceremony at Stony Brook University's stadium, where graduates can bring up to four guests. It also will be streamed. Other districts have scheduled commencements at Stony Brook, which charges about $13,000 for use of its facilities.

The high schools in the Plainview Old-Bethpage and Farmingdale districts will have their events outdoors at Hofstra, with the entire graduating class and guests.

Last year, John F. Kennedy High School's seniors, in the Plainview-Old Bethpage district, received diplomas in a parking lot ceremony at the Broadway Mall in Hicksville. Senior Joey Cline, 18, is grateful for this year's event, where he can bring four guests to the June 15 ceremony.

"This is something you look forward to at a very, very young age, and it is such a monumental moment in your life," he said.

Eastern Suffolk BOCES, which serves 51 school districts, mostly from Suffolk County, is planning a variety of programs for graduates and also for student move-up ceremonies. The BOCES’ tech program graduations will offer several outdoor ceremonies, so the 200 or so students can bring a parent. Other moving-up ceremonies will remain virtual, said Julie Lutz, chief operating office at Eastern Suffolk BOCES.

"Considering last year nothing was in person and it was all videotaped and posted on YouTube, it is so much better than that," Lutz said. "I think people will be happy to see their children graduate either virtually or in person with limited numbers."

Nassau BOCES is still planning a drive-through event.

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