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This page offers all of Delaware Public Media's ongoing coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak and how it is affecting the First State. Check here regularly for the latest new and information.

Bringing back some pomp and circumstance

Brandywine School District
Like graduations everywhere, Mount Pleasant High School's 2020 commencement looked very different due to the COVID-19 pandemic

Gov. John Carney announced this week that he’s lifting COVID-related capacity restrictions indoors starting May 21.

But any event hosting more than 250 people still needs a state approved plan. That includes upcoming high school graduations, which a year ago were substantially pared down because of the pandemic.

Will graduates get a more typical celebration this year?

Contributor Larry Nagengast surveyed schools around the First State to see what they have in the works.

Delaware Public Media's Tom Byrne and contributor Larry Nagengast discuss 2021 high school graduation plans in the First State.

With the COVID-19 pandemic seeming to slow down, commencement exercises for Delaware’s 2021 high school graduates are headed back toward normal – but not all the way back.

Gone are the drive-through and parking lot ceremonies that some schools tried last June – or sometimes later in the summer as they unsuccessfully tried to wait out the pandemic. Virtual graduations are also out but some schools, in a nod to the hybrid learning employed during the year, are planning to insert prerecorded elements into their programs.

Some schools, especially the larger ones, are again splitting their seniors into groups so they can abide by the state’s current capacity limits on large gatherings. And others have selected new venues for their graduation rites.

Some of the pageantry will return. Graduates will march and walk across a stage – but will be wearing masks and keeping social distance. Live music will return at some schools, but with ensembles smaller than usual singing the alma mater or playing Pomp and Circumstance.

“We want it to look and feel like graduation,” says Sam Golder, director of secondary school operations in the Red Clay Consolidated School District, who adds that he is “prouder of this year’s seniors than any others” in his 14 years on the job.

"We want it to look and feel like graduation."
Red Clay School District director of secondary school operations Sam Golder

“It will look a little different,” he admits, expressing the consensus of school officials up and down the state. “Masks will be worn, seats will be farther apart, guests will wear masks, and we’ll avoid the handshakes and hugs we’re used to doing at graduations.”

“The biggest special touch this year is that we’re having it,” says Nikki Miller, principal of Cape Henlopen High School in Lewes. Last year’s virtual event “taught us the importance of a [live] ceremony.”

Here’s a look at how a sampling of Delaware high schools plan to recognize the Class of 2021. With Gov. John Carney having announced a loosening of some of the state’s restrictions on large-group gatherings on Tuesday, some schools may adjust their plans between now and graduation day, but any gathering involving more than 250 people will require approval by the state Division of Public Health.

Early College kicks off early

In Kent County, the Early College High School at Delaware State University will kick off the state’s commencement season on May 18 at 6 p.m. in Hornet Stadium. The charter school’s first two graduations, in 2018 and 2019, were held in the DSU gym. Last year, because of the pandemic, the ceremonies were moved outside – and then delayed until July – because of attendance limits, Principal Evelyn Edney said.

This year the ceremony will include a mix of live and recorded remarks, which will be shown on the jumbo screen on the stadium scoreboard.

The commencement speaker will be former pro football player Devon Still, who was one of Edney’s students when she was principal at Howard High School in Wilmington. Still’s story of resilience– his daughter Leah was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a cancer of the nervous system, seven years ago and is now cancer-free – “is something our 91 graduates have also learned about as they have navigated through COVID,” Edney said.

Splits in Sussex

With about 400 graduates, Cape Henlopen High School will employ a split format, with students whose last names begin with letters A through K having their ceremony at 4 p.m. on June 8 and letters L through Z at 6:30. Each student will receive five tickets for family and friends, keeping attendance at the school’s Legends Stadium in line with the state’s pandemic-related limitations on large gatherings. The events will also be live streamed for the convenience of those who don’t feel comfortable attending, Miller said.

"The biggest special touch this year is that we're having it."
Cape Henlopen High School principal Nikki Miller

After initially scheduling a split graduation ceremony at Sussex Central High School, the Indian River School District converted to a single ceremony there, scheduled for 7 p.m. on June 1.  Indian River High School in Dagsboro already planned a single ceremony the following day at 7 p.m. The district’s Howard T. Ennis School for students with significant disabilities will hold an indoor ceremony at 1 p.m. on June 3.

Sussex Academy, the county’s only charter high school, will stick with the model it created last year – an outdoor ceremony at the school in Georgetown at 6 p.m. June 4, according to Head of School Eric Anderson. One big difference: this year the school’s 117 graduates will be able to invite eight guests, double last year’s number.

Bye, bye, Bob

In New Castle County, where several larger districts have more than one high school, the planning can be more complex, with restrictions on the size or indoor gatherings prompting officials to move away from a long-popular commencement venue, the Bob Carpenter Center on the University of Delaware campus in Newark.

The Brandywine School District, which has traditionally held back-to-back-to-back commencements at the Bob for its three high schools, will use the same format this year, but this time it will be at Von Stetten Stadium at Brandywine High School on Sunday, June 6. Concord High School will lead off, at noon, followed by Mount Pleasant at 5 p.m., with Brandywine under the lights at 8:30 p.m. Currently there is a limit of two guests per graduate.

Credit Brandywine School District
Social distancing was the norm last year for Brandywine School District graduations at Brandywine High's Von Stetten Stadium, which will host the ceremonies again in 2021

The Appoquinimink School District, which also had bee using the Bob Carpenter Center, has three high schools but it will hold its commencement exercises at a school that opened this year and doesn’t even have sophomores, let alone seniors – Odessa High. Ceremonies for Middletown High School will begin at 1 p.m. Saturday, June 5, followed by Appoquinimink High School at 5 p.m. Graduates may invite four guests.

When Odessa High School was constructed, the district planned to hold commencement exercises for all three high schools in the larger gymnasium at the new building. Because of size limits for indoor gatherings, the ceremonies will be held outdoors instead and stadiums at the other schools are not available because turf-replacement projects are about to begin at both sites, according to district spokeswoman Lilian Miles.

On the Riverfront

The Red Clay district shifted commencement exercises for four of its high schools from the Bob Carpenter Center to the Chase Fieldhouse on the Wilmington Riverfront two years ago before scaling back to virtual ceremonies last June, Golder said.

Red Clay will return to the Chase Fieldhouse on Saturday, June 5, with Conrad Schools of Science having its ceremonies at 9 a.m., followed by McKean at noon, A.I. du Pont at 3 p.m. and Dickinson at 6 p.m.

Credit Delaware Public Media
Red Clay School District will take all of its high school graduations to the Chase Fieldhouse near the Wilmington Riverfront

“It’s a good spot for Red Clay, close to our facilities and convenient for most of our families,” says Golder, noting that the district has also held concerts and middle school events there.

Red Clay’s three other high schools are holding their ceremonies on their own campuses. Charter School of Wilmington’s graduation will begin at 10 a.m. Friday, June 4, on the school’s football field. Cab Calloway School of the Arts, which shares facilities with the charter school, will conduct its ceremony at 5:30 p.m. on June 4. Delaware Military Academy’s ceremonies begin at 6 p.m. June 4 at the school’s Fusco Stadium.

The New Castle County Vocational-Technical School District, with four schools, is moving to a new site this year, Frawley Stadium on the Wilmington Riverfront.

“As an outdoor venue with over 6,000 seats, they were able to provide us with the same reduced capacity as they would use for baseball games,” said district spokeswoman Kathy Demarest.

The district is using Frawley on two days. On Tuesday, June 8, Howard High School will graduate at 9 a.m. and St. Georges Technical High School at 12:30 p.m. On Thursday, June 10, ceremonies for Hodgson Vo-Tech will start at 10 a.m. and Delcastle Vo-Tech at 2 p.m.

The time in between will allow for guests to exit smoothly and the stadium to be cleaned, Demarest said. The district chose to schedule ceremonies for mid-day rather than evening to minimize inconveniences related to the Interstate 95 construction project, she said.

Old school, new turf

Salesianum School graduates, accustomed to going out in style with their white tuxedo jackets, will stride across a new stage this year – at the new Abessinio Stadium, across 18th Street from the Wilmington school.

Delaware Public Media
Salesianum will hold commencement ceremonies for the Class of 2021 and the Class of 2020 at the new Abessinio Stadium

Their commencement is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday, June 5, but they won’t be the first Salesianum grads to celebrate at the new venue. The school’s Class of 2020, deprived of a formal ceremony last year because of the pandemic, will have a mini-graduation and first-year reunion at the stadium at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 1.

Tower Hill School will return elements of its pre-COVID commencments but on a smaller scale at dusk on Friday, June 11, according to Megan Cover, head of the Upper School. Graduates will sit on a flower-bedecked stage with families assigned to socially distanced pods around DeGroat Field, which will be illuminated by strings of lights arrayed above the pods. In a concession to the pandemic, Tower Hill is not keeping its tradition of having all Upper School students attend the ceremony. Only seniors, their families, faculty and staff will be at the event, Cover says.

Wilmington Friends, Delaware’s oldest school, will close with outdoor ceremonies at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, June 5, on the football field of its Alapocas campus, a marked change from last year’s celebration – an informal drive-through procession on the scheduled graduation date followed by a traditional (and socially distanced) ceremony in mid-July. Last year’s preliminary events – a final assembly and a senior family worship – were both virtual. This year, Head of School Rebecca Zug says, both events will be live but attendance at the senior assembly will be for seniors only, with the program live streamed to parents and other students.

Credit Wilmington Friends School
Wilmington Friends followed an informal drive-through graduation procession with more traditional, but modified July ceremony.

Assessing the year at Wilmington Friends, Zug hit on themes mentioned by school officials throughout the state. “It was hard for seniors in fall and winter, but they were amazing, they were mature, they followed the guidelines, and they were great,” she says.

The first days of spring brought a greater sense of normalcy and seeing the seniors’ resilience motivated school leaders to do more. “In any year, we try to make seniors feel very special,” Zug says. “This year we had a heightened awareness that they needed a stronger sendoff.”

For information on plans at other schools and for changes prompted by revisions to the state’s COVID-19 regulations, check the websites of individual schools closer to the graduation date.

This story has been updated to reflect the change to Sussex Central High School's plans on 5/14/21

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.