balloon arch

A pre-kindergarten graduate from Martin Pear Jewish Community Center's Early Childhood Center walks under a balloon arch May 15, 2020.

As the academic year winds down amid social distancing and canceled graduation ceremonies, schools are still finding creative ways to celebrate their students’ achievements, from pre-kindergarten to high school seniors.

On a recent Friday morning, cars full of parents, grandparents and siblings lined up in the Martin Pear Jewish Community Center parking lot by a balloon arch. There, pre-K graduates in cap and gown stepped out of cars, one by one, to have their names announced and photos taken. On the sidewalk, their teachers — wearing masks — waved and cheered.

The drive-through graduation was an exciting way to mark the end of the school year for students, said Jessica Knight, director of early childhood education at the MPJCC.

“They love being in their cap and gown,” Knight said. “Normally, we would have our Judaic specialist bless them under the tallit, but at least they can still wear their robe and their gown and we get a picture to the parents.”

For 4-year-olds, however, adhering to social distancing can be a challenge even in the best of times.

“They don’t understand that they can’t get out and run and hug their teachers or run around with their friends, so I think a lot of the prep is hard for some of the kids that are a little bit more sensitive,” Knight said.

Hebrew High celebrated the graduation of 11 high school seniors on Tuesday, May 12, with a Zoom call for students, teachers, parents and grandparents. Students and teachers spoke, Rabbi Erica Burech shared a message from the weekly Torah portion and two students sang and played guitar to open and close the ceremony.

“We didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out really, really nice and meaningful for the teens and the parents and even grandparents who were able to watch from afar,” said Myra Shindler, head of Hebrew High and executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education. “For having to substitute at the last minute, it worked out great.”

For some students, the smaller virtual ceremony was actually more meaningful. Hebrew High brings together Jewish teenagers from across different backgrounds, schools and synagogues, and the bond they develop over four years shows, Shindler said.

“One mother said to me that the Hebrew High graduation meant more to this grad than his high school graduation was going to,” Shindler said. “High schools have 500 kids, whereas Hebrew High had 11 graduates, and they all know each other very well from the last four years of school.”

The semester isn’t quite over for students at the Yeshiva High School of Arizona, and the school is still waiting to see whether in-person finals and celebrations, with appropriate social distancing measures, will be possible in mid-June. Depending on how coronavirus guidelines develop over the next few weeks, Head of School Rabbi Gavriel Goetz is considering a scaled-down celebration or a virtual alternative to the usual community siyyum.

“It feels important for recognizing their own accomplishments and recognizing their success, even more so in a certain sense this year, for persevering in a very challenging time,” Goetz said. “It just gives them more confidence going forward to the next year. We want to encourage that, but at the same time we don’t want this to come at any expense of health.”

Overall, students adapted well to online learning this semester.

“I think you definitely see a separation between men and boys, the people who step up when it’s harder in life,” Goetz said. “When challenging times come, you can see who puts in more effort and comes out stronger, and that’s what we’ve seen in quite a few of them. At the same time, it’s still a challenging time.”

At Pardes Jewish Day School, administrators and teachers are working hard to make the next week special for students, especially graduating eighth-graders. The week’s festivities will include social media shoutouts, an all-school drive-by, where students will be allowed to collect their yearbooks, and a take-over Tuesday, during which eighth-graders take control of younger students’ Zoom classes.

“It’s so exciting for them,” said Peter Gordon, head of school at Pardes. “We’re trying to push the envelope. This time in their lives that they’re in, how do you get celebratory messages to them when they’ve been pushed out of their paradigms? The silver lining is, we are not staying status quo. We are adapting.”

While the graduation celebrations aren’t what students are used to, they’re staying engaged. Attendance was close to 100% throughout the online learning portion of the semester, said Academic Principal Anna Lock — a sign that students are responding well to the interactive online learning environment that Pardes offers.

With graduation coming up, “they’re sad, obviously, but they recognize that we’re doing the best that we can,” Lock said.

Emma Lammersen, an eighth-grade student at Pardes, is looking forward to the celebrations this week. Graduating and looking ahead to high school in the midst of a pandemic isn’t what she expected, but she’s staying positive.

“It’s definitely different than I thought it would be, totally different,” Lammersen said. “It’s also sort of special, if you think about it on the bright side. It’s cool that they’re trying to do something for us even though we’re in a crazy time.”

Lammersen is especially looking forward to seeing her friends at the school drive-by and to a virtual version of the school’s “clap out” tradition. In a regular year, students would line the halls and clap as eighth-graders left the building. This year, a Zoom call will take its place, with the whole school coming together to clap.

“I just think that you have to make the best of it,” Lammersen said. “No matter what school you’re at, you can’t really have a normal graduation, but I think that if they’re trying to make it special for us, I think it’s the best they can do.” JN

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