East End Districts Prepare For Graduation Week

Schools have had to think outside of the box to recognize their graduates.

By Cayla Bamberger

With graduations slated for Friday and into the weekend, high schools on the East End are getting ready to say goodbye to their seniors. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, school staff have altered traditional ceremony plans, giving tenacious students the chance to walk across the stage and receive their hard-earned diplomas.

This week’s ceremonies come after Governor Andrew Cuomo’s announcement earlier this month that starting Friday, schools in New York can host outdoor, socially distanced graduations with a maximum of 150 people.

Pierson High School graduation will be held on Saturday, June 27, at 5 p.m. on the Pierson front hill. Students will be seated six feet apart on the lawn with twelve feet between rows, according to Superintendent Jeff Nichols, who said each graduate’s family has been allotted one parking space, or two spaces for families with two households, on the perimeter of the front yard and in a parking lot with good sight lines.

In East Hampton, Adam Fine tirelessly planned his last graduation as high school principal. Since classes went remote, Mr. Fine, who will take over as the district’s superintendent next year, was against the idea of a virtual graduation. “I didn’t find that to be personal at all, so we started crafting a plan,” he said.

The school’s graduation will take place in its parking lot, a massive expanse and a longtime headache for its principal. “It has given me fits for the past decade. As soon as this graduation is done, we’re making changes,” said Mr. Fine. “But it turned out to be a blessing — the biggest blessing of the year.”

On Friday, East Hampton’s approximately 220 graduating seniors will get into vehicles with their guests and file into the colossal lot alongside families from their area (Montauk, Springs, East Hampton or Amagansett). They’ll then drive up to an outdoor platform, where graduates can get out of their cars, receive their diplomas and pose for a professional photographer.

“When a kid looks at the experience of walking across the stage, this year it’ll be exactly the same as years passed,” said Mr. Fine.

Afterward, students will greet 30 of their teachers from their cars, orators will make live speeches, and families are invited to a photo-op tent and car parade led by village fire departments. The meticulous Mr. Fine has thought through all aspects of the day — even the direction of the sun.

“I moved the time up to keep the sun out of their eyes for at least two hours,” he said. “I want to make sure it’s perfect for the kids.”

Amanda Borsack Jones, proud mom of East Hampton senior Micah, cherishes the district’s hard work. “I’m very thankful for anything at this point,” Ms. Jones said. “We went from thinking this is all going to be virtual. The fact they were able to work this out is pretty incredible.”

Also on Friday afternoon, Southampton will host its own drive-up graduation, dubbed “The Motor Procession of Graduates.” The district is planning a car parade through Southampton Village, ending at the school. Seniors will exit their cars, take a picture in front of the anchor and cross an outdoor stage for their diplomas.

Later that evening, graduates will gather on the turf for group photographs, yearbook signings and a cap toss. Afterward, they’ll return home to their families to stream a virtual ceremony, with student speakers, graduation addresses and musical performances.
Hampton Bays High School will also combine virtual and drive-up celebrations, with the latter split between Friday and Saturday.

“In place of our traditional commencement exercise, we will hold 150 individual ceremonies in a drive-up program under the front awning of the high school,” Principal Christopher Richardt wrote in a letter to parents. Up to four cars are permitted to attend.

“The fact that we’re able to be in person, and see our teachers and friends again — although it’s a little different, we’re all very happy,” said Class President Nick Corredor, who attended Hampton Bays schools for 12 years.

Ross School, a K-12 private school in East Hampton, was one of the first to host graduation on the East End during the pandemic, before Mr. Cuomo permitted in-person graduations. However, had the guidance come earlier, Ross likely still would’ve had a virtual commencement.

Ross enrolls a large international population; in the almost 50-person graduating class, fewer than 20 students were local, and boarders left in mid-March. School administrators were conscious of a graduation that left out part of the class.

Graduation was video streamed at 9 a.m. — “not too early for families that were in California, or too late for Asia,” said Andi O’Hearn, the school’s head of advancement and operations. Afterward, Ross hosted a Zoom reception for the faculty and senior class to say their goodbyes.

“We hope to plan an event for this class of seniors when they are allowed to be on campus, hopefully next year,” said Bill O’Hearn, the head of school.

Riverhead High School will host a virtual graduation Friday evening, and an in-person ceremony at the Pulaski Sports Complex. To comply with the state’s 150-person cap, groups of graduating seniors will walk on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Each student gets three guest tickets.

“As we are all fully aware, our graduation ceremony has been drastically altered due to the current pandemic restrictions in place,” reads a June 12 letter from the school. “However, we will strive to make this as memorable as possible.”

On Friday, Westhampton Beach High School will also hold multiple ceremonies, divvied up by alphabetical order, according to a June 17 letter. Students are permitted two family members, while additional guests can live stream the event.

The next afternoon, Bridgehampton is planning an in-person commencement, made easier by its small class of 14 graduates. Each family will have a personal tent with 10 seats on the front lawn of the school. Although there will be no shaking hands, students will come up one at a time to receive scholarships and diplomas, and snap a photograph.

“We’re extremely excited that we get to spend one last day together,” said Mike Miller, the high school principal. “We really want to celebrate all their hard work over the years, and especially the last three months.”

“Their senior awards, proms — there are a lot of celebrations of senior year they’re going to miss out on,” he added. “So we want to really do something special for them.”