Break out the cameras and the yearbooks because after last year’s experiment in virtual high school graduations, the ceremonies and celebrations are coming back in-person to Queens this year.
“I think the students are really appreciative and excited for an in-person ceremony,” said Jesse Pachter, assistant principal at Maspeth High School, adding that the students had overwhelmingly opted for a nonvirtual ceremony after last year.
That’s not to say that everything will be back to prepandemic normal, though. The city and state have imposed strict limits on graduation capacity. According to state rules, schools will also have to require students, staff and guests to either fill out a screening form or prove that they have been vaccinated or tested within several days of the ceremony in order to attend.
That’s also not to say that virtual ceremonies are a thing of the past. Several schools will hold two events, one longer virtual affair that will include speeches, and another in-person ceremony that will be more focused on walking across the commencement stage.
Queens Village’s Martin Van Buren High School commencement ceremony will hold a virtual program Thursday June 24 where its valedictorian, its commencement speaker and others will speak. The following day at 9 a.m. it will hold an outdoor ceremony on its field that will be “shorter and sweeter” and broken up into several different sessions to accommodate the city’s regulations.
“We’re hoping things change and it’s one [session], but it might even be three,” said the school’s senior advisor Brian Greenspan.
While Gov. Cuomo announced a set of policies to regulate graduation capacity for indoor and outdoor policies back in April, the city Department of Education has established its own guidance for schools.
The governor’s rules, updated in May, set different levels of capacity based on the venue. For instance, at a large-scale outdoor graduation, a school could potentially host over 500 people in a venue such as a stadium as long as the number was 33 percent of the venue’s capacity.
Its guidance also says that when graduating students are seated on a field or stage separate from the spectators, students can be excluded from the capacity limits.
The city, on the other hand, has included a flat 500-person limit on outdoor ceremonies and 250-person limit on indoor ceremonies on school property, according to a DOE spokesperson. If schools are using non-DOE spaces, they can exceed the stated capacity as long as the venue follows state capacity guidelines. The department strongly encourages schools to hold in-person graduations in outdoor settings.
In order to maximize the amount of space for the outdoor ceremonies, many Queens high schools have scheduled ceremonies at spacious open-air venues like St. John’s University lawn.
Maspeth High School will also hold one ceremony for its students on the great lawn at 9 a.m. June 21, where each student will only be able to bring two guests, as opposed to the four to six that are usually allowed. John Adams High School in Ozone Park will also hold its graduation ceremony on the Red Storm lawn on June 25. The High School for Construction Trades, Engineering and Architecture, also in Ozone Park, will hold its ceremony rain or shine at St. John’s on June 24.
St. John’s lawn is not the only venue in play. Forest Hills High School will be doing a virtual ceremony first, followed by an in-person outdoor ceremony at Citi Field on June 28.