Cambria Heights graduation Hi-Way Drive-In

Jalen Kovac, Cambria Heights High School senior class president; Ken Kerchenske, Cambria Heights High School principal; Dustin Grush, Hi-Way Drive-In (Carrolltown, Pa.) representative; and Mike Strasser, Cambria Heights School District superintendent) from left) gather at the Hi-Way Drive-In in Carrolltown on Thursday, May 7, 2020. Due to COVID-19 virus restrictions placed on schools, Cambria Heights will take a nontraditional approach in holding its graduation ceremony at the drive-in on June 2.  

Area school districts are considering a number of options for how to hold graduation ceremonies while following COVID-19 safety guidelines.

Conemaugh Township High School is considering several options to send the seniors off, ranging from a virtual ceremony to waiting until later in the summer for a traditional gathering if mitigation efforts are lifted, Principal James Foster said

“Just trying to do the right thing in the right way is where we are in the process,” Foster said. “Whatever route we take we know we’re going to provide the best product.”

He described the situation as “trying” because for years the school has saluted its seniors a traditional ceremony. The class of 2020 most likely won’t receive that rite of passage because of the coronavirus.

Holding a “normal” ceremony is still on the table for some local schools, including Ferndale Area and Westmont Hilltop.

“We desperately want to have a live event for our students,” Westmont Superintendent Thomas Mitchell said. “We are considering alternative venues, limiting attendance, and dates later in the summer. But until the CDC recommendations provide for a large gathering, we must be patient.”

Ferndale Superintendent Carole Kakabar said her district is hoping to hold the event at the Greater Johnstown Career and Technology Center auditorium as usual, but all options are currently being explored.

The school also has some senior tribute activities “in the works,” she added.   

‘This is unprecedented’ 

This pandemic has created a host of logistical issues for the region’s high schools.

“The greatest difficulty of this situation has been not having answers in a time when people are desperately seeking them,” Conemaugh Valley High School Principal Jeffrey Miller said. “Because this is unprecedented, there is no research to guide best practice, so we are working together with the (intermediate unit) and other schools to see what’s happening locally and what best fits our individual schools.”

Conemaugh Valley has a number of plans in the works, but Miller said another difficulty is how to effectively reach everyone about the ceremony.

Greater Johnstown High School is opting for a televised ceremony on local TV station WJAC on June 18, Superintendent Amy Arcurio announced at the May 5 board meeting.

What will appear on TV is a program tailored to the district with spotlights on the seniors to include their accomplishments, accolades and future plans. 

Arcurio said speeches and music can be included as well.

“That will give each and every one of our families the opportunity to view graduation on their own television in their own homes and see all of the remarkable things that our senior class has done the whole time they’ve been with us and most importantly, you know, what the future looks like for them,” Arcurio said.

The Greater Johnstown ceremony will be recorded and copies will be provided to graduating seniors. 

‘Everything is ... tentative’ 

Several schools, such as Central Cambria, have been in touch with the seniors to discuss the situation and gather feedback.

Chris Santini, Central Cambria’s principal, said a survey went out to the graduating class and to the parents “to gauge their opinion on senior events.”

“Both groups were overwhelmingly in favor of holding a graduation ceremony, even if it needs to be delayed into the summer,” Santini said.

The school has three potential dates in June, July and August.

One alternative being considered is having families come to the school individually for the presentation of diplomas.

Each presentation would then be recorded and compiled into a video that includes speeches and musical performances.

“At this point in time, no option is off the table,” Santini said. “We will do what we can do to give our seniors the send-off that they deserve.”

Tim Regan, Richland High School principal, said his district is going to have the students come to the school separately for their own ceremonies.

Those will be recorded along with speeches, so it resembles a typical ceremony, and compiled into a video to be shown at the Silver Drive-in on June 3.

“Everything is as tentative as we can possibly have it,” Regan said.

He added that he hopes the students and parents know that this isn’t the way Richland wanted to have the graduation, but it was important to the administration to honor the class of 2020.

“It’s vital we give them the best send-off we can,” Regan said.

The school is also exploring the option of airing the graduation on a local TV station at a later date. 

Drive-in recognition 

Penn Cambria School District Superintendent William Marshall said the administration there was worried about not having all students available for a traditional gathering later in the summer.

That’s why the seniors will be given a drive-in style ceremony at St. Francis University at the end of May.

A parade of seniors in vehicles will be held through the campus with family vehicles gathering in the parking lots of the JFK Student Center a few spaces apart to ensure social distancing.

Penn Cambria isn’t alone in coming up with creative solutions to the graduation problem.

Cambria Heights High School Principal Ken Kerchenske got permission to hold a ceremony June 2 at the Hi-Way Drive-in in Carrolltown.

“When I called the owners of the drive-in, they were more than happy to help,” Kerchenske said.

His school will also be holding a parade of senior vehicles beginning at the high school in Patton and proceeding to the venue.

Kerchenske said the district is going to use its social media presence to let the residents of the area know about the parade so anyone who wishes to participate can congratulate the seniors from their porches or yards along the parade route.

The option of a drive-in ceremony allowed Cambria Heights to make more concrete plans, Kerchenske said.

He added that the seniors seem to be excited about it.

The school is currently collecting photos from the class of 2020 to be compiled into a video that will be shown on the screen at the Hi-Way Drive-in – with each student’s name and future goals or plans.

Each diploma will be taken to the senior’s vehicle to be handed out.

Joshua Byers is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @Journo_Josh.

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