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High school graduations touch down on football fields

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Graduations are back. This spring, all four of the diocesan Catholic high schools plan to have in-person, outdoor graduations on their football fields. After pandemic safety measures necessitated virtual ceremonies last year, school communities are looking forward to the commencement festivities.


“There is great excitement that we can have graduation in person,” said Kathleen McNutt, head of school for Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria. But there is some worry over the logistics, too, she said. In the event of rain, schools will move their ceremonies indoors with contingency plans that range from decreasing the number of guests to livestreaming the ceremonies to guests seated in various parts of the schools.


“There’s anxiety on the administrative side in terms of the weather. It's almost like planning for a wedding,” said McNutt. “We want this to be just right for these students.”


Though they did their best to recognize the accomplishments of seniors last year, it just wasn’t the same, said McNutt. “So much was missed last year, certainly for the Class of 2020 but for us as a school community,” she said. “Commencement exercises — they seal and finalize the school year where we’re celebrating academic success for our students and sending them on. It was a reminder of how important those opportunities are, not just from a celebratory perspective but from a faith perspective, that we gather and share gratitude for God and his blessings.”


As with the other high schools, St. Paul VI Catholic High School in Chantilly will allow four guests per graduate at an outdoor ceremony. Other senior traditions are continuing with modifications. The Baccalaureate Mass will be celebrated at the school. There will be an outdoor leadership awards dinner for seniors and another for juniors. The school will still have college shirt day, where seniors can wear a shirt with the logo of the college they’ll attend in the fall.


Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington has a tradition of taking a panoramic photo of the seniors on the football field in the shape of the year they graduate. But this year, they’ll be spread out a lot farther than usual, said Boomer Buckreis, activities director.


For the past year, the seniors haven't seen half of their classmates because the student body was split into two cohorts to allow for social distancing. But the school is planning a senior week to allow all of them to attend together. “We’ll have time for adoration and reflection, a Spikeball tournament. They’ll sign senior yearbooks. We’ll have a cookout (and) they’ll sign each other’s white (senior) polo shirts,” said Buckreis.


Instead of the traditional river cruise prom night, seniors will have a chance to dress up in tuxedos and dresses at a dinner hosted at the school. After dinner, “there'll be about four different places throughout the campus where they’ll be music playing and lounge areas where students will be able to be together,” said Buckreis. Sadly, there won’t be dancing. “We’re telling them to stand 6 feet apart and dance with their eyes,” said Buckreis.


Seniors at Saint John Paul the Great Catholic High School in Potomac Shores had prom May 1 at Marine Corps Base Quantico. “Students rotated in groups to eat, dance and take a mask break on the back patio and 80 percent of (the) class attended,” said Diana Tillotson, assistant to the head of school. As with some of the other high schools, John Paul also will livestream its graduation ceremony.


Joseph Vorbach, diocesan superintendent of schools, sees the in-person celebrations as a sign of better things to come. “In-person graduations are a mark of the resilience of the graduates,” he said. “And of hope for a continued gradual return to the norms and traditions of school life going forward.”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021