Some local parents are keen to take up Premier Doug Ford's offer last week that outdoor celebrations of graduations would be permitted this month for every grade.
"The opportunity to give the graduating class of 2021 a proper graduation in these unprecedented times has arose and it is essential that we take action," says a change.org petition started by parents urging the York Region District School Board to change its current decision to have virtual ceremonies, as planned prior to the premier's announcement.
With support from students and parents and planning committees, the outdoor ceremonies can be held, according to the petition's organizers.
In a letter sent to families earlier this week, York Region District School Board said it will move forward with the virtual graduation ceremonies that have been planned.
“With the safety of our students and our staff as our number one priority, we have planned for virtual graduations this year in June,” the letter states.
The board said that “planning for graduation ceremonies is a significant process which schools began planning for months in advance.”
More than 1,000 people had signed at the time of publishing, close to the goal of 1,500 signatures.
"We didn’t get to enjoy our senior year in school so we deserve an in person graduation to celebrate this milestone and how well we did this year despite all the unprecedented changes!" one student wrote.
However, not everyone is welcoming the idea of outdoor graduations.
Newmarket mother of four Shameela Shakeel, who is the co-chair of York Communities for Public Education, isn't in favour of the gatherings.
“I can’t even have five family members over in my backyard and (the premier) wants to have outdoor grads and announce it in June? It’s a little bit late,” she said.
Changing graduation plans with so little notice would put a lot of pressure on school staff, said Shakeel, who has a child graduating from Grade 8 this year.
She said teachers have been especially strained this year, are currently busy with report cards, and she thinks having to organize a last-minute outdoor celebration is easier said than done.
"I think everybody needs to be really mindful, just manage the expectations and just because Doug Ford says something, it doesn’t mean that it is what’s in the best interest of our students and educators," Shakeel said.
Also, she's concerned the push for outdoor graduations will create inequity among schools and students.
"What we don’t want is some schools having virtual grads and some schools not having virtual grads, because that’s bound to happen,” she said. “It flies in the face of equity when you have some schools able to pull it together and some schools just can’t. We have some schools here in Newmarket that they just don’t have the resources.”
YRDSB stated in its letter that in-person ceremonies could still be considered, but it is waiting on more information from the Ministry of Education.
“Once we have received that direction, we will review it carefully, taking into account that any on-site, face-to-face recognition of our graduates will need to consider a number of factors. This will include engaging with York Region Public Health for their direction as we must ensure that we continue to prioritize the safety of our students, families, staff and communities.”
The York Catholic District School Board said in a statement that it works with the region and the government when it comes to school activities.
“The York Catholic District School Board will continue to work with its partners at York Region Public Health and the Ministry of Education to ensure the safe operation of its schools in compliance with all public health guidelines and COVID-19 protocols. This includes graduation ceremonies,” the board said, however they did not respond to a request for clarification.
Patrick Casey, York Region director of corporate communications, said that public health is currently discussing with both boards how the events could happen safely.
"Public health will provide guidance with respect to infection prevention and control measures school boards can take to safely host these outdoor events," he said.
He added the provincial government has outlined requirements that schools must follow to keep outdoor ceremonies safe:
- Celebrations should be organized by class for elementary school and by homeroom or quadmestered class for secondary schools. A maximum of two guests per student can attend.
- All celebrations should take place outdoors – no indoor celebrations are permitted.
- Celebrations should only take place where physical distancing can be maintained.
- Gathering before and after the celebrations will not be permitted.
Other factors include screening for COVID-19 symptoms and keeping a record of all people in attendance, wearing masks, providing hand sanitizer, and prohibiting graduation gowns.
Following the province's announcement, the Town of Newmarket was quick to offer free use of the amphitheatre at Fairy Lake Park for outdoor graduation ceremonies.
“This is one small way we can help to bring some positivity and a ray of sunshine to our community, by recognizing the hard work and dedication of graduates of all ages. Our goal is to make this as safe and as easy as possible for the schools to host in-person outdoor graduations, which is a major milestone that deserves to be celebrated,” Mayor John Taylor said in a statement.
Since making the offer, the town said many parents have inquired about outdoor ceremonies and two local schools have expressed interest in using the space, however, approval would be required from their school boards.
For community members who are hoping for more to celebrate the class of 2021, Shakeel has some advice.
“There’s a lot that can be done, we learned a lot from last year. Some schools are being very creative with what they’re doing this year and I think that should be championed and applauded," she said.
The mother, who also serves on school council at her children's school said they are organizing a drive-thru event at the school for teachers to say good bye to the graduates and they have arranged to give each graduating student a gift.
She said she encourages other parents to reach out to their kids' schools and see if they can help arrange something special but ultimately she said "embrace whatever the schools are providing, just enjoy it."
Members of the Highway 11 Cruisers car club have organized a graduation drive-by on July 6, starting at 7 p.m., that will go past all seven secondary schools in Newmarket, as well as Southlake Regional Health Centre and along Main Street Newmarket. You can find more details here.