If it were any other year, students, parents, grandparents and anyone else going to Milton High School’s graduation would have had one question: What’s the weather going to be like on Sunday?
When it’s not raining, the graduation ceremony is held outside. Last year when it was sunny and warm, an estimated 3,000 people attended.
Often the weather seems questionable.
“With my luck, it will be a 100% year,” said Principal Jeremy Bilhorn. “A 100% year is when it’s 100% rain or 100% not, and the decision is easier.”
Since a new HVAC system was installed last summer as part of the pool project, the gymnasium has been equipped with air conditioning and ready for the heat and humidity.
But weather isn’t a worry this year with the ceremony streaming on the Red Hawk Media YouTube channel at 2 p.m. Sunday.
The decisions were a bit more complex: not only where but – when and how – with the governor issuing a Safer at Home order, extending the order, the Wisconsin Supreme Court striking down the order, then Rock County issuing an order and lifting its order.
“Our guidelines and understanding of COVID-19 continued to change,” Bilhorn said. “That made it difficult.”
He wrote down principles to guide the decision making.
• We wanted to do our part in the community to keep our students, our staff our public safe.
• We needed to be able to honor our graduates.
“The graduates deserve the honor,” he said. “This is a milestone event. We take this ceremony seriously. We want to make the pomp and circumstance. We want to make the kids feel like a million bucks and we want the parents to have that sense of pride.”
• We wanted to be able to be decisive.
“These kids – there’s a very unique time period when they will switch over from being high school kids to being post high school. You go too far into the summer, kids have switched. You have a very special time period where you need to be able to have that transitional event and it’s right at the end of high school.”
The administrative team looked at a drive-thru scenario, a parade and even a traditional ceremony not on school district property.
They factored in the guiding principles, worked with the county health department, and with the school district insurance company and attorney to comply with state laws.
More than 30 parents contacted the school about the graduation ceremony, Bilhorn said, adding he talked to the parents and those comments too were taken into account.
“Where we landed was a culmination of all those things,” he said.
Students were given three options: 150 picked up their diploma and walked across the stage in the gymnasium, 92 received their diplomas in the mail, and 18 had their diploma delivered to their homes.
The temperature was 86 degrees on May 26 when Bilhorn and Associate Principal Tara Huber delivered diplomas. They drove “Clifford, the big red van.”
Some families did not feel comfortable coming to the high school or they wanted to have more than their parents present when they received their diploma.
“If you wanted to have more than just your parents (because that is what I had gotten approved with the health department), we gave this option,” he said.
Bilhorn said he enjoyed being able to give them their diploma and give each senior that special moment.
“It was great to see the support these kids have and they’re so appreciative of getting their diploma, he said.
Taking the diplomas on the road, he said, “I felt like the Prize Patrol, all I needed was balloons and a big check. It was fun.”
When asked what he will miss most about not having the traditional ceremony, he said the energy from the crowd, seeing the graduates feel that energy of being celebrated, and the joy on their faces as they walk across the stage.
“It’s professionally the best day of my year, every single year,” he said.
This year, MHS had what administrators and staff referred to as “the five days of graduation.” Diplomas were handed out Tuesday through Saturday last week.
With students and parents arriving at school at scheduled times, he said, “I got more time to talk with parents than ever before. Even if it’s a 5-minute conversation, you don’t get that at a regular graduation.”
Opportunities to take photos of individuals receiving diplomas were never better, he added.
Parents who saw their graduate walk across the stage could walk right down the center aisle, past chairs with photos of the graduates, to get the best photos any parents have ever gotten.
“I don’t this class to be defined by COVID-19,” Bilhorn said. “This class will not be defined by COVID-19. This class will be defined by how they reacted to COVID-19 and the fact that that was just one quarter of their entire four years of high school. This is class is going to be remembered for an amazing school spirit, some pretty unique individuals. They will not be defined by COVID-19.”
Photos of all individual graduates will be shown in a virtual ceremony, lasting about an hour.
“I hope people watch the ceremony on June 7,” he said. “There’s a lot that’s going into it.”
Because the Class of 2020 is Milton High School’s 100th graduating class, the ceremony will include not only graduates, speeches and music, but school history.
As this year’s graduation was being planned, Bilhorn said, “One of the things I began to appreciate is how important the high school graduation really is. I began to appreciate what a milestone event does for our kids in their transition.”
Without a doubt, this will be the best virtual graduation ceremony Milton High School has ever seen.