What Virtual Graduation Means to Philly’s Seniors

Philadelphia high school seniors wore their caps and gowns in an auditorium last year. Family and friends looked on and shouted in the aisles. The graduates shook hands with their principals and received their diplomas. 

Picture graduates walking to their living rooms and turning on the computer for the class of 2020 commencement. Their parents are nearby, but their friends are quarantined in their homes. The principal reads the names of graduates through a conference call. 

For the seniors in the School District of Philadelphia (SDP), this is their current reality.  Superintendent William R. Hite says that the school district will hold a virtual graduation ceremony for students. The commencement, happening on June 9 at 11 a.m., will be broadcast on the district’s public access channel, PSTV, and streamed online


Monica Lewis, the spokesperson for the School District of Philadelphia, says that the district thought it was the best option for graduates and their families during the coronavirus pandemic. “Everyone at the School District of Philadelphia, from Superintendent William Hite to staff at our more than 200 schools, to people throughout the City of Philadelphia, understands that the last few months have been full of unexpected challenges and disappointment,” said Lewis in an email.“The fact that so many people have come together shows just how proud we are of the Class of 2020 and how important it is for us all to acknowledge the accomplishments of this remarkable group of young people as they begin the next chapter of their lives,” concluded Lewis. 

The New Graduation

Justice Passé, 19, and Emily Caswell, 17, two seniors graduating this year, believe that the school district is handling graduation amid COVID-19 well.  Passé, a graduate of Abraham Lincoln High School, says that although this is not the graduation he hoped for, he still plans to attend the SDP’s virtual graduation. “I was going to have two graduations, one for my program and one for my school. It wasn’t what I pictured,” said Passé. “Some schools are doing [graduation] through cars. I know that our school district can’t do that through other means.”


Earlier in the pandemic, the SDP faced backlash over their initial decision to not hand out caps and gowns to graduates. The district made the decision, citing concerns about health and safety. 

Mary Beth Malloy, the mother of Maddy Malloy, a Science Leadership Academy senior, had her post go viral after criticizing the district’s choice. Both talked with the media. The school district then announced in May that all 54 high schools would receive caps and gowns.

Caswell, also a senior at Science Leadership Academy, says that she wasn’t upset about the district’s first decision. “We were going to get them eventually,” said Caswell. “It is not a personal attack. While it’s okay to be upset, I think it’s a difference in complaining.”

Moving Forward

High school graduation rates in the school district increased in the last three years. Around 80% of public school students and about 70% of charter school students graduated in the 2017-2018 year.  In a city where more than ¼ of its residents live in poverty, high school graduations are essential celebrations for students and their families.

In the age of social distancing and technology, the seniors will enter a world of uncertainty this year.  But for Passé, Caswell, and other high school students in the district, they will remember this time for the rest of their lives. 

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