The following letter was sent to parents of Shelton High’s Class of 2020 and submitted to The Shelton Herald for publication.

To the Editor:

In September of 2007, you dropped your child off for their first day in kindergarten, choking back tears, full of mixed emotions, unable to believe your child was already headed to school and nervous about what may lie ahead. You stood by them every day since that day, through the roller-coaster ride of parenthood, watching as they learned to make friends, played musical instruments, developed a passion for new sports and hobbies, experienced love and heartbreak, learned to drive, and navigated all the challenges and successes, the ups and downs of growing up.

Before you knew it, it was 2019. The home stretch. The senior year! The year that every student and parent looks forward to. This was the year your child was going to play varsity sports, be the captain of their team or club, go to the prom, take an epic senior trip ... this was the year that was to be the pinnacle of their academic career thus far, and everything they’ve been working towards since that first day of elementary school, so many years ago.

You found yourself looking ahead, with all those mixed-parent-emotions, to the day when they would gather with their friends and collect their diplomas. A day that would be filled with tears of both nostalgia for days gone by and excitement for the new days that lie ahead. A day made for celebrations, selfies, and that epic moment when they toss their caps into the air and collectively shout, “Yes. I did it.”

And then Covid-19 happened. And just like that, you stood powerlessly watching as so many of those hopes and expectations just ... disappeared.

I get it. This isn’t the senior year you wanted. This isn’t the pinnacle year that you’d hoped for. This isn’t the senior year that your kids deserve.

So, what now? Specifically, what about graduation?

As you all know, the Covid restrictions have posed some incredibly difficult challenges. The guidelines are changing all the time, yet one thing we know for sure is that this year, graduation day will look different than the one any of us had imagined. Faced with the challenge of creating an event that would be meaningful and memorable to our Class of 2020, the Board of Education formed an Ad Hoc Committee to guide the planning and implementation of the event. The committee is comprised of two BOE members - myself and Amy Romano; our interim Superintendent, Dr. Beth Smith, Assistant Superintendent Ken Saranich, SHS Interim Principal Kathy Riddle, two SHS teachers and senior advisors Sam Lapaglia and Shannon Laspina, two SHS senior parent representatives and three of our SHS seniors. The intent of forming such a committee was to ensure that the voices of both parents and, most importantly, our senior students, were heard and represented in the planning. As the chair of that committee, I’d like to try to help you all understand how we arrived at the current plan for graduation.

When looking at the graduation plan, it is of the utmost importance to note that, while graduation day is a special day for all of us — parents and family members, teachers, counselors, administrators - really, everyone who had a hand in helping our kids successfully reach this moment— it is what will make the day special and meaningful to our kids that matters most. Above all, this is their day. And so, with the help of our senior students, we identified the top 3 most important elements to them, which were (in no particular order): 1. Walking across the stage to receive their diploma, 2. The “ceremonial” aspects (marching in, sitting down, listening to speakers, student recognitions, etc.), and 3. Having their friends and family with them. As a committee, we agreed to take the approach of not debating whether or not something could be done, but rather how to do it.

It’s also important to note some of the restrictions that guided our decisions. The most limiting of which is the allowable size of gatherings. The current allowable size, per the governor’s executive order, is a 50-person maximum. While not official yet, we anticipate that those guidelines will expand that number to 150, effective July 6. Additionally, in between gatherings, all venues must be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized, social distancing of 6 feet will remain in place, and participants must wear face masks at all times.

These policies are not optional for the district. Failure to comply with the executive orders could result in the Board of Education being subjected to not only action taken by the state of Connecticut but also liability by private individuals.

With those things understood, we focused on how to execute the graduation priorities of our students. Their preference was to not be separated into small groups, nor did they want to be forced to limit the number of invited guests and family members. Everyone agreed that finding a way for our students to graduate with their friends and families in attendance was priority #1. Doing some additional investigating, we learned that anyone who remained inside their vehicle would not count towards our max capacity of 150. This was terrific news because, if we could find a way to make that work, we could allow roughly 120 students to graduate at a time without having to exclude or severely limit the number of guests. It would also allow students to formally march in their caps and gowns, to take a seat, to listen to the speeches of their classmates, and to cross the stage in view of their friends and families to collect their diploma. Top 3 priorities? Check, check and check.

As that discussion evolved, our students told us that they were okay sacrificing the football field venue in favor of the parking lot, as long as it was their parking lot. So, Dr. Smith set about taking pictures of the area and putting together an idea of what a parking lot graduation might look like. BOE members Amy Romano and John Fitzgerald set out to take measurements and look at the logistics of getting the stage, the students, and 120-plus cars set up in the lot, while ensuring the audience has a full view. I’m happy to report that all of it looks very doable. The plan also includes a professional photographer to take pictures of students as they receive their diplomas and we are working to get the AV equipment needed to ensure that everyone can see and hear everything from the comfort of their air-conditioned cars. We will also be able to livestream all three graduations on our NFHS network and will compile them into one recorded ceremony that will be available for the class by the following week.

The next step was to pin down a date. We knew that to make this plan work, we needed to do it later than July 6, when the guidelines would allow for gatherings of 150. We also received feedback from parents and students indicating that they didn’t want to put it off for too long, and recognized that, while some folks suggested waiting until August to see if the guidelines would relax even further, allowing too much time to pass equally put us at risk of the guidelines being re-tightened. In addition, knowing that many of our students will be preparing to head off to college, the military, or to begin other careers, it was decided that the sooner we could do it, the better. When a survey to the community about date preferences (the week of 7/6 vs. the week of 7/20) came back with a near 50/50 split, the committee decided we would propose the date of July 8, which would allow enough time for families to return from any holiday travel, and to set a rain date for July 9. Those dates will be voted on by the BOE later this week.

Finally, we are still in the early phases of implementation but are continuing to work out the smaller details that will make this event as special and meaningful to our class of 2020 as possible. By including our students in these decision-making processes, we have been able to incorporate all of elements that are most important to them. I’m confident that, as our parents and our community rally together to support this event, we will be able to provide our students with the best experience possible.

To that end, I want to thank each of you for taking the time to read this and acknowledge that this is not an ideal situation. I hope that as you struggle to reconcile these plans with the vision you’ve held in your mind, you can find it in you to grant us a measure of grace, knowing that we are working within strict limitations, but with only the best interests of your children at heart. It is my sincere wish as a fellow parent that graduation day will still hold a special place in your heart and in your memory as you continue to watch your children grow into the incredible adults you’ve prepared them to be.

Mandy Kilmartin

Member, Shelton Board of Education

Chair, Graduation Ad Hoc Committee