Over the next two weeks, high schools across the Flathead Valley are holding modified outdoor graduation ceremonies with strict social distancing measures and attendance limitations in place.
During school closures, principals reported that parents and students across the valley made clear the importance of holding in-person graduation ceremonies, and despite the constraints of precautionary measures, school officials are expressing gratitude for the ability to hold events of any kind.
Kalispell’s schools are up first, with Linderman Education Center conducting its ceremony at 7 p.m. on May 28 in its parking lot, followed by Flathead High School on May 29 and Glacier High School on May 30, both at Legends Stadium. Whitefish, Bigfork and Columbia Falls all have outdoor ceremonies scheduled on June 6.
Each of the 318 Flathead High graduates and 308 Glacier graduates receives two tickets, allowing each to have two people in attendance at the ceremony. Attendees will sit in pairs six feet apart in the grandstands and in chairs on the track. The students will be spaced out on the football field, where they will walk across a stage one by one to receive their diploma. Then graduates will do the ceremonial turning of the tassel and toss their caps in the air.
The two schools’ events will be live streamed on their websites. Glacier’s will also be broadcast live on The Monster 103.9 FM, while Flathead’s will be on KGEZ 600 AM. Each school has also prerecorded ceremony features, including music and speakers, and those videos will be available on the school websites.
Flathead High School Principal Michele Paine acknowledges the strangeness of the ceremony’s circumstances, but thanked Hillary Hanson for allowing it to take place at all. Hanson is the Flathead City-County Public Health Officer and incident commander of the local COVID-19 response team.
“We feel very fortunate that Hilary Hanson granted us the ability to hold the ceremony,” she said. “It’s going to be a really fun event, and I’m excited to see all the seniors in one place again.”
Glacier High School Principal Micah Hill echoed Paine in thanking Hanson for giving her blessing.
“It’s the best we could have hoped for,” Hill said, adding that his son is graduating and only his wife will be allowed to attend to abide by the two-person-per-graduate rule. “Parents want to see their kids graduate. It’s one of those rites of passage from adolescence to adulthood. It’s a big event for kids and their families, and we’re pretty fortunate that we’re even being allowed to do this.”
Flathead’s ceremony begins at 6 p.m. on May 29. Glacier holds its event at 11 a.m. the following day. Both will be held rain or shine.
Whitefish High School will hold its graduation ceremony on June 6 at 1 p.m. at Big Mountain Ranch, with gates opening to guests at 11:45 a.m. The ceremony will be held rain or shine, barring “extreme weather” with lightning, which would lead to cancellation.
“Everyone should plan for the best and be prepared for the worst weather conditions,” Principal Kerry Drown said in fact sheet for the ceremony, called “The Montana Way.”
Each of the 135 graduates receives one ticket that admits one vehicle carrying a maximum of four immediate family members. Graduates whose parents live in separate households will be issued a ticket for a second vehicle of immediate family members.
Due to the terrain, proper footwear — not dress shoes — is encouraged. A prerecorded graduation ceremony video will available online beginning at 1 p.m. on June 6. Students will accept diplomas on a stage, with groups of family members spaced six feet apart in attendance.
Bigfork High School is holding its ceremony for 70 graduates at its football field on June 6 at 11 a.m. Each graduate gets four tickets for family members to attend. Attendees will be in the grandstands or on the football field, spaced six feet apart, while the graduates will be spaced out on the track.
Graduates will walk across a stage to receive their diploma. There will also be other common ceremony features, including student speeches, and the event will be streamed online. Principal Mark Hansen said he’ll “pray for sunshine.”
“We’re hoping it doesn’t rain; we don’t have a plan B,” Hansen said. “We can’t put that group of people indoors.”
Columbia Falls High School will holds its ceremony at Satterthwaite Field on June 6 at 11 a.m. Each of the 137 graduates gets six guest tickets, while a big screen will allow people to view the event from their cars in the parking lot. To eliminate crowding upon entry, a website will direct families to their predetermined seats ahead of time.
The ceremony will also be live streamed online and broadcast on 104.3 FM. It will feature student speakers and the awarding of diplomas to each graduate on a stage. A prerecorded ceremony video will contain some of the same features, including speeches, although pictures of the students with their names are used in lieu of a walkthrough.
“I think it will honor the kids and commemorate the day very well,” Principal Scott Gaiser said.