Pennsylvania school district plans to save graduation with a ceremony at a drive-in theater

When Superintendent Nathan Barrett called the local drive-in movie theater last Thursday to try to salvage his Pennsylvania school district’s graduation ceremony, the owner of the establishment seemed flummoxed.

A high school graduation? At a drive-in movie theater?

“If you could have heard the awkward silence,” recalled Barrett, who leads the Hanover Area School District in northeast Pennsylvania.

But Barrett and the owner of the Garden Drive-In managed to figure it out, and on June 4, the nearly 200 seniors and their families will drive to the theater, remain in their cars, and the students will receive their diplomas – or symbolically receive them, depending on what the guidance is at the time from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Barrett, in his first year leading the 2,000-student school system, said he is waiting to determine whether students will be permitted to leave their vehicles when their names are called to collect their diplomas from an administrator.

If not, he said, the school would ship diplomas to students.

Across the country, school districts have closed their campuses in an attempt to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The extended closures have threatened rituals like prom and graduation.

“Students are reaching the apex of their academic career, and they are still receiving the ceremony without having a drastic delay,” Barrett said. “I’m trying to strike while the iron is hot and they are still in high school.”

Hanover Area High School officials will prerecord the graduation ceremony. Student speeches will also be prerecorded. The ceremony will be projected on the movie screen. The screen will show the yearbook portrait of each graduating senior when their names are called.

The audio of the ceremony will be played through the cars’ radio systems.

Barrett said families plan to decorate their cars for the occasion. Students will wear traditional mortarboards during the ceremony. One family, he said, asked if they could arrive in a limo.

The high school typically hosts graduation in its auditorium, and the superintendent said he recruited local sponsors to help pay for the unusual ceremony. He informed seniors about the event in a video call Monday.

“They are already getting creative,” Barrett said. “When they learned about this, it was kind of like, there’s a glimmer of hope in this situation.”

So will Barrett also try to save the prom?

“That’s not something that’s even on my radar,” he said. “Most of that is intimate space, so I’m not touching that.”

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