Senior events celebrate the graduating class despite online learning

Investigative

By Teddy Crowther ’22 and Ashleigh Stepnowski ’22

As the school year comes to a close, KO seniors and faculty have faced a difficult task in creating traditional senior events that can be both effective and celebratory, while still occurring primarily online.

During a normal school year, many events celebrated the seniors in the spring, such as Class Night, the Seven Year Dinner, the Prize Assembly, and, of course, graduation. However, these events were severely sidetracked after the coronavirus epidemic forced KO to move to an online school format.

These events, luckily, were modified so that many of these traditions could be carried on and the graduating Class of 2020 could experience them. English teacher and Form Six Form Dean David Hild, Head of the Upper School Daniel Gleason, Head of School Tom Dillow, Dean of Students William Gilyard, Director of Alumni Relations Elizabeth Bellingrath, and other school administrators formed a team to communicate and make crucial decisions throughout this process that would affect the execution of these events.

During the early weeks of online learning, the team debated whether to hold off on this planning or to start moving forward with an online format. As these events got close, feedback was gathered from students and parents alike to find an ideal option, given the circumstances. “It was a big group effort,” Mr. Hild said. “We had parents involved in brainstorming, and we also had students involved. We had four meetings, we sent out polls, and some of the kids filled out feedback sheets.”

One of the first events planned was “Senior Wednesday,” a recurring event where seniors could stop by KO to pick up breakfast and see their peers and teachers while maintaining social distancing. The event was primarily organized by Mrs. Bellingrath and the advancement team. “We decided that Wednesdays were a day where they didn’t have any classes, and the seniors needed something to look forward to,” Mrs. Bellingrath said. “We invited them to parade through the Upper School circle, and we gave them this amazing box of treats.”

This event carried on throughout the month of May, and they expanded upon the idea to make it an enjoyable experience for everyone involved. They placed signs on the senior green for the seniors and chalked their names on the circle, and Upper School Administrator Lindsay Perkins created signs of the student’s faces to put around the circle. 

Seniors also were invited back to campus to paint the senior rock and carve their name into the senior plaques, an initiative planned by Mr. Hild and his team. The senior prefects also held a prefect skit online, while still keeping the charm that the community was used to.

Moving into the month of May, many more events were planned or postponed to accommodate social distancing and online learning standards. The students, parents, and faculty all agreed to push the graduation to June 6, a date recently moved up so the class can finally graduate in-person. While the details of this event are still not specified, they will comply with social distancing guidelines and provide the much-deserved ceremony for the seniors. The Seven Year Dinner was also moved to a later date in hopes to reunite members of this class once social distancing measures were relaxed.

However, typical end-of-school events like Class Night, the Prize Assembly, and even the Thesis Assembly ended up moving to an online format. The Thesis Presentation was held on Wednesday, May 6, and the Prize Assembly was held on Tuesday, May 19. “The ceremonies are tougher because all the kids want is to see each other face to face,” Mr. Gilyard said, talking about the challenge of holding these events online. “I would say that the thing that brings them closer together is having those Senior Wednesdays where they’re coming back on campus and seeing people again.”

Class Night was also held online with many pre-recorded segments interceding a live video. Students came back to campus over the past two weeks, giving speeches or performing songs to be used on Class Night. “We had many recordings sent to Mr. Kravetz, who will create a webinar with it,” Mr. Hild said. “Some of the stuff is live, some parts of it, like the musical performances, are pre-recorded.”

While all these events surely helped improve the unfortunate circumstances the seniors faced, they still weren’t getting the senior spring they all desired. “I wish we could say that they could have that experience, but they’re not,” Mr. Hild said. “It’s obviously better than nothing, but it’s not what they want.” This was the primary motivation in pushing graduation and the Seven Years Dinner back, in hopes that the seniors can still have the celebration they wanted.

There was one more event that capped off the seniors’ time at KO, even if it wasn’t graduation. Students and families of the graduating class all came together in their cars to watch a ceremony with the pictures of the class on the Schaller Auto Dealership electronic billboard. While the seniors were still in their cars in a parking lot, the class was able to celebrate their final days at KO with cheering and admiration for them and their peers.

Throughout the spring, seniors have attempted to make the most of the challenging circumstances they face by finding ways to communicate online or through these events like Senior Wednesdays and the drive-by graduation. 

Although many of the traditional senior events have had to be modified, the response from seniors and their community has been positive and understanding. Initially, many seniors were disappointed to hear that many of the events were canceled or modified. Senior Maggie Eberle spoke about how she was initially disappointed about the senior events. “I was a little disappointed that we wouldn’t have prom or graduation that was scheduled normally,” she said.

While disappointment was shared by all, some seniors and faculty expected that modifications would need to be made. “I was definitely bummed out that I was going to be missing things, but I really did expect it,” senior Ella Schwartz said.

English Department Chair Catherine Schieffelin, who put together the Senior Thesis Assembly, felt similarly. “As we shifted to online learning, I wasn’t too optimistic that we would return,” she said. “I kind of assumed that many of these events would either have to be ditched entirely or would have to be adapted in some way.”

Given that many seniors look forward to the traditional events, faculty and administration wanted to ensure that the seniors still had a unique and memorable experience as similar to the traditional events as possible. “For every senior event, the goal was to make it as personal and close to the living KO tradition as possible,” Dr. Gleason said. 

This effort put in by the school did not go unnoticed by the seniors. The addition of the drive-by breakfasts and Senior Wednesdays was popular and well-received amongst the seniors. These breakfasts allowed the seniors to see their friends and teachers, while still being socially distant. “I saw some friends and some people, and it was really nice to see different faces and see people you haven’t seen in a while,” Ella said. 

The inability to host in-person events has taken its toll on students and faculty alike. “As a faculty member who loves these end of year events, it’s been tough,” Ms. Schieffelin said. “End-of-year events like Class Night, I’m really disappointed that we’re not going to be able to do that in person. People generally are feeling pretty disconnected, isolated. To some extent, these virtual activities, like the Faculty Appreciation Assembly, the prefect skit, are a way to cling to some of that sense of community.”

Seniors are grateful for the effort that the school has put in, and the same effort that their teachers gave during these tough times. “The best thing that KO has done to combat that [disappointment] was the teachers,” Maggie said. “The way the teachers handled it, I’ve had nothing but positive reinforcement and outreach from teachers, especially the Form Six advisors.”

While the entire KO community has faced many challenges this spring, thanks to the resilience of the school’s faculty and students, many traditional senior events have occurred with the same charm and spirit as when they happened in-person.