Wilton Rallies Around WHS Seniors After Appeals in GMW, as Graduation Plans Begin Falling Into Place

Tuesday’s stories in GOOD Morning Wilton–an interview with three senior members of the Wilton High School Graduation Committee and essays written by two seniors–helped clarify confusion about plans for the WHS Class of 2020 graduation celebrations.

The outreach by students inspired support from the community for the students following questions raised on social media by some parents and students about exactly what was being planned. Dozens of comments on social media reiterated support for the handful of students involved in crafting the plans as well as for the members of the entire class whose experiences at the end of their K-12 academic careers were vastly different from what they had expected.

Communication from school officials later in the day helped bring plans into more focus. A letter from school principal Dr. Bob O’Donnell outlined plans that had been presented to town officials for approval, and a follow-up email from Don Schels, WHS’s associate principal, clarified things even more.

School families had been eager for information after waiting several weeks as the graduation committee–comprised of students, school faculty and administrators, and parents–had to navigate COVID-19-related restrictions set by the state that placed rigid limits on what would be allowed.

“This plan, crafted by our graduation committee, in close consultation with town officials, involves a car procession, including a conferral of diplomas with social distancing, and a virtual graduation ceremony,” O’Donnell wrote. “Many details of the plan are outlined below and we will continue to communicate further details as we have them. We are excited to give the Class of 2020 a wonderful ceremony organized through strong student leadership and collaboration and to make clear how proud we are of all its accomplishments.

Car Procession

Like a traditional graduation ceremony, the main element of the 2020 graduation ceremony will feature a processional of students. However, in the age of COVID-19, it’s now transformed into a processional of cars.

“On [Saturday,] June 13, the original date for graduation, we will hold a Class of 2020 senior car procession through a route in town that will culminate at the high school. Our students felt strongly about holding this car procession as an event that will include every member of the graduating class,” O’Donnell wrote, adding, “This plan was approved by First Selectwoman [Lynne] Vanderslice and Chief of Police [John] Lynch this afternoon. To achieve approval for our plan, we have assured them that our students and families will stay in their cars and adhere to all prescribed guidelines during the procession.”

Later in the evening, Schels sent a “clarification” to families to better manage expectation, explaining that the route the processional will take hasn’t yet been firmed up, and likely will be “somewhat shorter than originally envisioned.”

The committee had hoped to have the procession pass by all four Wilton schools so that graduates could symbolically journey along the same path they took academically, Schels wrote that idea likely won’t be possible. Much of the original concept route would have traversed state roads, which would require approval from the CT Department of Transportation–something the town would be unlikely to receive.

In addition, any procession will require significant involvement from Wilton Police and CERT for safety and traffic management. As a result, the final route hasn’t yet been finalized.

“The route will be designed in conjunction with the police and town officials to ensure safety, compliance with applicable law and to manage the logistics involved in such a project. As a result the route will likely be somewhat shorter than originally envisioned, but more than sufficient to create a dignified and memorable experience,” Schels wrote.

O’Donnell listed guidelines for the Car Procession in his letter, noting that seniors should wear their caps and gowns and that they’re “encouraged to decorate their cars in Wilton Warrior spirit.”

He noted that families would be limited to one car, and “the number of occupants would be limited to the number of seat belts in the car.” Graduates are supposed to ride as passengers rather than as drivers, but could “safely wave through the sunroof or window.” In addition, students and families are required to stay in their cars for the entire experience.

It was unclear in O’Donnell’s letter how officials plan on enforcing the guidelines.

Diploma covers will be presented to graduates once they reach the high school by a school official. O’Donnell noted that the “mechanical extension device” mentioned in previous discussions about plans–to some criticism from parents–would not be part of the program.

While he did say a “keepsake photo to capture the experience” would be taken, O’Donnell didn’t specify if that would be by a professional photographer. However, the student members of the graduation committee had explained in the prior GMW interview that both professional photographers and student videographers would be involved to capture the event for graduates and their families.

Actual diplomas will be delivered to graduates’ homes separately sometime following the ceremony.

Additional details, including hours of the procession and logistics of staging and lining up, are still being worked out. Presumably, coordination will require significant review with town officials and police. O’Donnell said more information would be published in the week before graduation.

Virtual Graduation Ceremony

O’Donnell confirmed that other, more traditional elements of a typical WHS graduation ceremony will be presented in a virtual format.

“Prior to the car procession, key participants (one at a time with social distancing and without a physical audience) will enact the important speeches and rituals that are hallmarks of our normal celebration. The virtual ceremony will be recorded and/or streamed, allowing everyone to watch before or after the car procession occurs. In this way the remarks of student officers, school officials, and the valedictorian, as well as the ceremonial music, can all be captured, enjoyed now, and preserved for posterity,” O’Donnell explained.

Additional Photo Opportunities

O’Donnell addressed families’ interest in taking photos in settings that typify past graduations, including athletic fields with the Wilton ‘W’ logo. He didn’t specify exactly where those photos would be taken.

“In the weeks following graduation, students and families will be able to come to campus for a photo of them in their cap and gown with their families. We will make this opportunity available at the high school with an appropriate graduation background during the week of June 15. Final times will be published in the weeks leading up to the event. First Selectwoman Vanderslice informed us today that families will also be able to sign up for larger family and group photos after June 20 through the Parks and Recreation website,” he wrote.

In her nightly COVID-19 update to residents, Vanderslice specified that families would be able to use Lilly Field for such photo locations.

Parent Involvement

In a nod to the feedback school officials have received in recent weeks from parents concerned about whether the graduation plans would be substantial enough in light of many state restrictions related to the pandemic, O’Donnell invited parent involvement in executing the plan.

He thanked parents who have reached out offering “to help ensure that this is a special time for our seniors, in spite of the challenging circumstances. We appreciate your ideas and support and will need your assistance and special touches, now that the main tenets of our plan have been approved by the town. Our graduation committee still has work to do planning the major parts of each event before June 13 and will appreciate the other measures that parents and residents will provide to enhance the experience. As volunteer opportunities are clarified, we will reach out and count upon your help,” O’Donnell wrote.

Graduation Committee

O’Donnell closed his message by acknowledging the contribution of the graduation committee.

“It is important to once again thank all student, parent, and faculty members of the graduation committee who have spent countless hours organizing and achieving approval of this plan under adverse circumstances. Our entire community should be very appreciative of their work and the manner in which they have promoted and honored the student voice and leadership in the process. This committee will continue to fulfill this important charge going forward to the big day.”