MANITOULIN – Graduation celebrations are generally a highly anticipated rite of passage. In this time of COVID-19, with health and safety concerns and limited gathering sizes, local schools and school boards have come up with alternate ways to recognize the achievements of graduating students.

Manitoulin Secondary School and Grade 8 students in the Rainbow District School Board (RDSB) will see their traditional ceremonies postponed to the fall in response to a Minister of Education request to school boards. “These ceremonies are important to students and their families and they are important to us,” said Norm Blaseg, director of education for RDSB. “They will take place in the fall when it is safe to do so. Safety, as always, is first and foremost.”

Mr. Blaseg saluted the class of 2020 for their hard work and their resilience. “Students can be proud of their efforts. We are certainly very proud of them, and we look forward to the day when we can come together to celebrate.”

RDSB trustee for Manitoulin Island Margaret Stringer said the well being of students, staff and families the board’s first priority, noting she was pleased that graduations will take place when it is safe to do so. 

“Graduations are important milestones for students, families and staff as everyone comes together to celebrate student achievement,” she said. “Watching students walk across the stage to accept their diplomas is one of the most gratifying roles for me as a trustee. These are memories that last a lifetime. Our graduates will have the opportunity to enjoy the traditional celebrations they so richly deserve.”

Ms. Stringer thanked graduates and their families and their families for their patience, understanding and flexibility before offering congratulations for all their hard work. “They make me proud each and every day,” she said.

Wiikwemkoong Board of Education (WBE), Wikwemikong High School (WHS) and Pontiac School staff have been working hard to find ways to celebrate their graduates. Grade 8 graduates of Pontiac School will have a livestreamed presentation and each will receive a package of graduation goodies including a pizza dinner for their family, a copy of the presentation and their cap and gown. 

There was a co-ordinated effort to complete the presentation, which will be streamed June 11 on WBE’s Facebook page as well as on TV5. The focus is on adaptability and resilience, said Cheryl Miller-Martin, principal, and includes remarks from Ms. Miller-Martin, the education director, Ogimaa Duke Peltier, speeches from two valedictorians, slideshows of school activities and photos of each graduate, and ending with commentary and good luck wishes from school specialty teachers including Anishnaabemowin, arts and culture and physical education. The music played throughout was chosen by students.

The students aren’t happy about the circumstances but Ms. Miller-Martin said she will work with the high school principal when school returns in the fall to arrange a celebration of their Grade 8 graduation into Grade 9. 

“We decided we’d put together this meal package for the families,” she said. “Cake, pizza, pop and chips plus balloons and gift certificates for them to use as they wish. They can celebrate this time with their parents and families. I know some of them are sad but this is an experience. We all learned something together this year and how we need to be mindful of the world around us.”

Grade 12 graduates from WHS were surveyed and the majority preferred to wait for an in-person graduation that will be held in September, as long as things have returned to some semblance of normal and no gathering restrictions are no longer in place. 

“It is sad that things are different this year,” said Principal Maureen Peltier. “Our original plan was to have a virtual graduation, which would have been very different and a first in Wikwemikong High School history. It’s a big rite of passage in a teenager’s life so we understand why they would want to have it in person.”

In the meantime, there is a graduation parade planned for the original graduation date of June 16, beginning in the WHS parking lot at 3 pm. The parade will travel from WHS to Maple St., then right on Wikwemikong Way and up to Zipp Thru before heading back to WHS.

“I know the Wiikwemkoong community will join us in celebrating our graduates in this unique way,” said Ms. Peltier. “Normally our graduates are allowed two guests at graduation ceremonies but now with the parade they can have many more.”

The board typically holds a graduation and awards ceremony the Thursday before the civic holiday weekend, according to Rona George, manager and lead post-secondary navigator for WBE. “In light of the current restrictions due to COVID-19, the discussion of a possible cancellation will be taken to the next WBE meeting later this month,” she said. “Currently, our graduation committee, consisting of staff from our post-secondary student support services and the Wii Ni N’Guch Tood LMS program, are in the process of making plans for an alternate delivery if the event is cancelled for this year. We will make that announcement once the WBE has made a decision.”

The Expositor reached out to M’Chigeeng First Nation for information on Lakeview Public School’s Grade 8 graduation ceremony but had not received a response as of press time.