Graduation and Other Year-End Events: How to Plan During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Graduation and Other Year-End Events: How to Plan During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Graduation and Other Year-End Events: How to Plan During the COVID-19 Pandemic

School Heads//

March 29, 2020

As the end of the school-year draws ever closer and campus buildings remain shuttered, there is an increasing urgency for school administrators to decide how best to handle traditional activities like commencement and honors ceremonies.

School leaders need to create a delicate balance between appropriately honoring their students, while still managing the challenges and realities of the situation. ISM offers the following advice as you consider your year-end events and traditions.

Step #1: Examine each event through the lens of your school’s mission and values.

Critically examine and rank each of your year-end events as central to your mission and consistent with traditions. For those events that rank highest, determine if you can effectively deliver the event through a virtual format or if it must be held in-person.

If you decide that an event is not “mission-critical,” give your school’s Leadership Team permission to cancel it this year. This summer, as you revisit your 2020–21 calendar, reflect on whether you can permanently add the event to the schedule.

Step #2: Develop a three-case scenario for each event.

Once you have decided which events to preserve this school year, create a three-case scenario for each.

Plan A: Campus reopens before the originally scheduled date of your event

While this is certainly an ideal scenario, you still must consider what impact the crisis may have. For example, relatives from out-of-town (particularly grandparents) may be less willing to travel when restrictions are initially lifted, or international borders may not yet be open, even if your campus is.

If your school does not yet have the ability to stream large events to a live audience, use this time to research equipment or other resources required to ensure a seamless virtual experience for those not in attendance. Also give special attention to existing vendor and facility contracts. With many local businesses hit hard by mandated closures, ensure that any with whom you have previously contracted can still deliver their goods or services.

Plan B: Campus reopens in mid-June or July

Plan to delay your in-person events until the summer. As outlined in Plan A, develop contingencies for streaming your events. In addition, if you typically host your event at an offsite location, like a church or area theater, contact those venues to hold alternate dates.

Follow the same protocol with caterers or other third-party vendors you may have secured. If your original vendors or locations are not available, research and, if necessary, place deposits with alternate businesses or venues to secure your Plan B dates.

Plan C: Campus reopens in the fall or later

If it becomes necessary to push an event into the fall or beyond, you may wish to reimagine it entirely. Could you virtually confer diplomas during the summer months, with a celebratory graduation party hosted during the 2020 holiday break, when college students return home for vacation?

Consider seeking confidential input from your Board’s Development Committee about Plan C options. These are extraordinary times that call for thinking far outside conventional norms and traditions.

Each of your contingency plans will require cost estimates to determine budgetary impact. Additionally, your Business Manager should complete a budget analysis for the remainder of this school year to determine performance and the affordability of the above plans. If the plans will not work within your normal operating budget, cash reserves—which are designed for unanticipated and mission-critical opportunities—may be required.

Step #3: Communicate clearly, consistently, and with empathy.

Regardless of your ultimate plans for year-end events, you must communicate with your Board, faculty and staff, parents, and students early and often. As each day passes, anxiety levels will increase among your key constituents if they are not clear about the school’s decision-making process and plans.

Let your community know that school leadership is developing several plans and is committed to providing the best culminating events and experiences possible considering the ever-changing landscape of the pandemic. Tell your constituents when you will provide the next update and when a final decision will be made. Above all, be empathetic in your tone, your word choices, and in your decision-making.

Step #4: Remain flexible.

If there’s one thing we have learned through the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that we are dealing with a moving target. Accordingly, be prepared for the unexpected—good and bad—and be nimble in your approach.

Plans B and C may not be needed at all—or they may become plans D and E. Re-evaluate your contingency plans weekly, or more frequently as needed. Schools that prioritize what’s best for their students and families will, in the end, have real reason to celebrate.

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