Hensley announces new plans for on-site graduation

Principal Melissa Hensley has announced that in addition to the virtual graduation ceremony, an on-site graduation will be occurring June 3, 4 and 5 to celebrate the Class of 2020. After viewing how other schools across the state have held makeshift graduations, Harrisonburg High School has decided to hold this event in order to provide every senior the opportunity to receive their diploma in person and walk across the stage.

“It’s similar to some [schools whose ceremonies] have been well received by their communities,” Hensley said. “We’re hoping our community is going to receive this very well and [that] it will provide our graduates with the opportunity to walk across the stage.”

HHS faculty has followed direction of local officials to guarantee this ceremony adheres to safety guidelines outlined by the Center for Disease Control and Governor Northam. In essence, graduates will arrive at HHS on his or her specified date and time and drive from station to station (outlined below) before exiting their car at the football field and walking across a stage that will be set up there. A detailed letter explaining how the event will function will be emailed to families today (5/13/2020), and a second letter with each graduate’s date and time slot over the course of the three days will be sent next week. Below is a step-by-step run through of the order of events for each graduate once he or she arrives at HHS. 

Photo courtesy of Melissa Hensley
This aerial image of HHS shows the first four stations of the on-site graduation event.
Photo Courtesy of Melissa Hensley
This aerial image of the HHS football field shows Stations 5-10 of the on-site graduation event.
  1. “[At] [Station] One on the diagram, the graduate and their family will enter. [It’s] the bus loop parking lot. The graduate will be wearing their cap, gown, and appropriate attire for graduation,” Hensley said. “Someone will meet them there and direct them to a parking spot [to wait to be called]. It’s important that everyone stays inside their vehicles for the safety of everyone involved. We’ll be bringing in five to six families at a time every 30 minutes to get them through this process.”
  2. “When the person at the [Station] Two is ready, they will call the [next] family forward,” Hensley said.
  3. “Once they [leave] Station Two, they will be moving to Station Three which is the back area of the multipurpose room,” Hensley said. “That will be an area where we will provide the graduate with a bag [in] which they can return anything that they have that is school owned. [This includes] materials and supplies that need to be returned to us.”
  4. “Once they have finished up there, they will go to [Station] Four at the bottom of the ramp that leads up to the football stadium,” Hensley said. “It’s the area the marching band often uses to go up to the stadium for football games. Folks will wait there at the bottom of that ramp, still in their vehicle.”
  5. “Once they are directed to go to Station 5, they will drive their vehicle up to the gate [and] be let in by a staff member. They will pull up in front of the concession stand,” Hensley said. “At that point, seniors will receive anything we need to get to them [like] cords that haven’t [been] picked up, certificates or medals. Any kind of awards or anything of that nature that we still owe students will [be] picked up at that location. Again, they’re still in the vehicle.”
  6. “The vehicle will then proceed to Station 6 and park at that location. The [graduate and their] parents and/or guardians for each senior will then exit the vehicle,” Hensley said.
  7. “[The graduate and parents and/or guardians will then] walk over to Station 7 which will be approximately the 5-yard line [of the football field],” Hensley said. “There will be a stage that we’ve already made arrangements to rent out at about the 50-yard line. When they’re at Station 7, they will be with their parents and, when directed to do so, they will walk to the stage.”
  8. “Once they arrive at the stage, the parents will move to the front of the stage [and] watch their student receive their diploma,” Hensley said. “[They can] take some pictures there. I’ll be on the stage with them. We’ll provide an opportunity for photographs.”
  9. “Once we have all the pictures of the graduate with their diploma, they will then proceed off the stage and move to the photo tent. We’re going to put up a tent with a Harrisonburg High School backdrop in it,” Hensley said. “We’ll have a photographer there who will take photographs of the family and the senior. There will be another photo opportunity, but we haven’t exactly decided where we want to put that.”
  10. “Then, they will exit the stadium, return to their vehicle and exit the facility using the access road that runs behind the visitor [team’s] bleachers,” Hensley said. 

Just like at the previous traditional graduation ceremonies, Bradley Walton will be announcing the name of each senior as he or she walks across the stage. 

“I know that’s a favorite of all our graduates and seniors at the high school, so he has graciously agreed to call everybody’s names,” Hensley said. “He’s going to spend the whole three days with us to make sure he will have the opportunity to do that [for everyone].”

In order to maintain the safety of each person both facilitating and attending the graduation, there are limitations to how many people are allowed to be on the football field at one time. The specific number of family members who will be allowed to exit the vehicle and watch from the football field has not been announced at this time. 

“We can only have 10 people in an area,” Hensley said. “We wish we could have more people there, [but] we are limited unless the Governor’s orders change. I still think it gives us a great opportunity to honor and celebrate our graduates.”

Despite there being a limited number of relatives who can watch from the field, more family members can still attend while watching from their car. 

“If a family [were to] come with parents and graduates in [the] car, [the family] could have another car follow, or even a second car follow for a total of three cars, to watch the graduate walk across the stage,” Hensley said. “Those individuals would have to remain in the vehicle, but they would still be able to see it. [This] will be [an] opportunity for family and friends to be able to be there, but they are all going to have to be able to arrive on time.” 

Currently, HHS is setting up a dedicated graduation phone line where questions about the ceremony should be directed. 

“There will be a specific cell phone number that will be provided to each of our graduates and their families,” Hensley said. “If they have questions about the graduation [like] when they are to show up [or] what they are to do, they are to call that line and a person will direct them or answer their questions.” 

In addition, if a senior is planning on not participating in this ceremony, he or she should call the cell phone number to make alternative arrangements. Because of the size of the senior class, the ability to change a time slot is not guaranteed.

“If we tried to accommodate all of their schedules, we simply wouldn’t be able to [hold the event],” Hensley said. “We are asking people to make arrangements to the best of their ability. If they have a conflict they can’t work around, they will be directed to call the number and work with Mrs. [Kim] Hill to see if there is any flexibility in movement of time.”

The virtual graduation ceremony originally scheduled for June 6 will still be occurring after the on-site graduation. Here, speeches and the confirmation of the graduates will occur. 

“What we have decided to do is continue working with that company so we will be able to do the actual confirmation of the graduates through that virtual mode. It will air after this event, so we are going to try to embed some of the photographs from the on-site event into that presentation,” Hensley said. “It will be something that families [and] graduates will [be able] to have and access. We felt like we could maintain that piece of it and build in photos and things from the [in-person graduation] event.”

Each graduate will be allowed six minutes from the time he or she exits his or her vehicle to walk across the stage, receive his or her diploma and take photographs. Hensley hopes this new graduation plan will allow the senior class to honor what they have worked toward during thirteen years of school. 

“[They] certainly deserve their time to shine,” Hensley said. “They deserve to be front and center, and while we can’t give them back what they’re missing, I think this is as close as they can come to it.” 


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