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‘We are Lucky’: Delta Responds to C-virus Shutdown with ‘Drive-in Commencement’

Delta Junction High School

Despite the coronavirus shutdown, Delta Junction High School seniors and their friends and families will get to celebrate their graduation this year after all. That’s because the students and district administrators have worked out plans for an unusual commencement ceremony Thursday night that’ll allow the community to honor the seniors – while protecting their health.

Senior Makenna Paine says she and a lot of her classmates were heartbroken when Delta-Greely School District officials told them a few weeks ago that state health mandates will make it impossible for them to conduct the traditional commencement ceremony.

“So when I found out that we weren’t going to be able to have a graduation ceremony,” she said, “I started thinking of different things that we could do.”

Paine, who’s president of the Delta High School’s Student Council, says she and other seniors quickly began to brainstorm on Plan B – and so did Brett Stirling, the high school principal.

“I really wanted to find some way to give them that moment to stand up in front of people and hold up that diploma and be recognized,” he said.

Stirling says his determination to find a solution was motivated by more than the usual institutional concern that a high school principal would feel about an important event like commencement. For him, this was personal.

“This particular group is special to me, just because it’s my fourth year as well,” he said. “So, these kids have been in the high school all four years that I’ve been here, and I’ve been their principal all four years.”

Credit DJHS
Delta High School Principal Brett Stirling announces plans for the drive-in commencement during a social-media webcast last month.

Stirling says he felt added urgency because he’s leaving his position at the end of the school year. So he and Paine along with some other district officials and students began to work on plans for an alternative kind of commencement that would comply with the state’s coronavirus-precaution guidelines.

“We’re having a drive-in ceremony at our local fairgrounds here in Delta Junction,” he said.

Stirling says the open-air get-together would allow both seniors and their well-wishing family and friends to participate in the rite of passage from the comfort of their vehicles.

“We’re going to set up a circle with a 600-foot radius that ensures 12 feet of distance between vehicles,” he said, “because even between vehicles in a drive-in ceremony, we have to have 6 feet of separation.”

The seniors will be given their diplomas in a set-up that’s similar to what they’d be using in the high school gymnasium.

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
The DJHS 2020 commencement ceremony will be held at the Deltana Fairgrounds, on Nistler Road next door to Delta Elementary School.

“We’ll have a stage set up in the middle, and they’ll be able to walk in and get up on a stage and pick up their diplomas,” Stirling said, “All of those will have been sanitized and placed far enough apart that they’re not going to touch anybody else’s diplomas.”

Paine says she appreciates the administrators’ willingness to work out differences with the students and come up with the final plan.

“They gave us a few of their ideas and we were able to talk about it,” she said. “And that was something that was super-important to me – that they were making us a part of it.”

School board member Eileen Williams praised district officials for their willingness to work with the students to ensure they’d have a commencement.

“It will be a fun and celebratory ceremony, as much as it can be with the restrictions that we have in place right now,” said Williams, whose daughter, Hailey, will graduate Thursday.

Paine says some seniors are still grumbling about the final plan. But she says the experience taught her and others an important life lesson on how to negotiate and compromise and work out agreements.

Credit DJHS
Delta-Greely School District officials are encouraging area residents to line the "Grad-itude Drive" route to cheer the 2020 graduates after Thursday's commencement.

“It’s not ideal, but we’re getting a lot more than other schools are getting,” she said. “There’s a lot of schools, a lot of seniors, who aren’t getting anything. So, we are lucky.”

Stirling says after the ceremony, the graduates won’t do the traditional Senior Walk, in which they stroll though the elementary and junior and senior high schools, so the students can cheer and congratulate them. This year, it’ll be members of the community who’ll be cheering for the grads, as they cruise around town in their vehicles – in a sort of a Senior Drive.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.