Drive-in diplomas? Schools get creative for alternative graduations

Even as group gatherings are banned, schools are coming up with clever ways to celebrate graduating students.

The graduating class of 2020 has already lost out on the last months of their school careers, with missed proms, sports seasons and other extracurricular showcases.

For many, traditional graduation ceremonies are also up in the air, with COVID-19 crowd gathering restrictions giving way to online options or delayed celebrations.

But some schools have come up with a safe, socially-distanced middle ground: Drive-in graduations.

According to Mischelle Simcox, the Director of Schools for Tennessee's Johnson County School System, the creative idea was inspired by the urge to "showcase (the kids) and end their senior year in a positive way" for their 154 graduating seniors.

Traditional graduations may be on hold for the year, but some schools are using drive-in theaters to hold ceremonies. Getty Images stock

"This is such a sad time for everyone in the schools, but especially for our seniors," said Simcox, whose district closed on March 16. "We wanted to figure out a way where they could have a formal ceremony, as a group. You want to be able to graduate with your friends and your cohorts."

Simcox added that a partner school in Avery County, North Carolina, was planning on doing a similar graduation. School districts in several other states have also indicated that they plan to celebrate their graduating class with the alternative ceremony.

Paul Javener, founder and operator of the Stardust Drive-In Movie Theater in Chetek, Wisconsin, said that he's been approached by several nearby schools about using his facility, which fits about 250 cars, for graduations. While the local Department of Health needs to sign off on the ceremonies, he said that he's more than happy to work with schools who decide to use the venue.

"We're getting special permission from the county in order to do the graduations here, and they've been real supportive of that," said Javener, who noted that shutdown restrictions keep him from showing films in the drive-in. "...People have expressed a real interest in it."

Some schools, like Simcox's, aren't located near an actual drive-in theater, so they're making do with other outdoor locations. On May 23, students will be seated six feet apart from each other in a large local park, with families and non-students in cars. Students will be able to walk across the stage, receive their diploma, and experience a formal ceremony while avoiding any further spread of COVID-19.

In some districts, students will experience a graduation from their cars. Getty Images stock

Sandra Reed, Ph.D., the superintendent of Mississippi's Bay St. Louis-Waveland School District, said that students have been excited about the alternative graduation. Her school district plans to use a local football field for their 130-person graduation, and is partnering with Jeep to ensure that each student and their family can drive in to the graduation.

"We sat down and started trying to brainstorm ways that we might be able to do something special for our seniors, who are missing out on a lot," said Reed.

Reed said that the graduation will be "fairly traditional" despite the changes, with speeches from faculty and the student valedictorian and a "staging area" where students can pick up their diplomas.

"We've got (the staging area) decked out so it's a really nice photo op of them in the Jeep, getting their diploma, with their family there," Reed said.

Javener said that he hopes to see school districts take advantage of the "cool things" that a drive-in graduation could offer.

One drive-in theater owner pointed out that the venue allows for schools to think creatively. Getty Images stock

"You can think of this as a watered-down kind of version of your graduation, if you want ... or you can think of it as a drive-in theater graduation and think of the things you could do with that, and make it special because of that," he said. "We can light up the screen with the kids' bios or whatever, their pictures, pictures of them in prom outfits all dressed up, we can do a lot of different things. It could be something really special for a group of kids who are losing the end of their senior year and all the things that come with that."

Reed's district has instituted several alternative means of celebrating the graduation. Once the ceremony is completed, students will parade down the town's main road, and socially-distanced tents will be set up for students to take photos with their families.

"It's exciting," she said. "The overwhelming majority of kids have been very responsive and very grateful that we're doing it ... We're doing a lot for our graduates, I think, and I'm happy with the send-off we're giving them, even though it's very non-traditional."