Northwest Arkansas' largest school districts are proceeding with plans for in-person graduation ceremonies this year, administrators said.
"I am so happy that our seniors get to have an in-person ceremony this year," said Jay Dostal, Fayetteville High School principal. "They have missed out on many of the traditional senior year events, so being able to give them a prom and a graduation has been extra special. Seeing their faces light up knowing that their senior year will end on a high note has been an awesome experience."
Nicholas Millard, 18, of Bella Vista is graduating from Bentonville's West High School. He said he's grateful for the effort being made to have in-person ceremonies.
"I can't imagine how terrible it was for students last year," Millard said. "I'm glad they're making the attempt and working their best to accommodate students."
Thea McKinney, 18, of Centerton said she's excited to participate in graduation as a West High senior but feels it's a double-edged sword during the pandemic.
"It's cool that I get to graduate in person, but then in the back of my mind, I'm worried if my family that's not vaccinated yet is going to get sick from being around all the people," McKinney said.
Ceremonies are set for May 15 at Tiger Stadium for Bentonville High School and at Wolverine Stadium for West High School, said Jennifer Morrow, secondary education executive director. The district has 1,225 graduates, she said.
The district had family walk-through events on each school's football field last year. Ceremonies were held at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville prior to the pandemic.
The district decided in February to have in-person ceremonies when Gov. Asa Hutchinson gave communities and organizations greater flexibility for events and downgraded state directives to guidances, Morrow said.
"Our school board and our community task force for reopening reviewed the options carefully and made decisions to begin a slow return to pre-pandemic programming and events with some precautions still in place," she said.
Springdale, Fayetteville and Rogers are returning to pre-pandemic traditions by having commencements at Bud Walton Arena, according to administrators. The arena has put conditions in place to allow districts to offer in-person ceremonies this year, Dostal said.
"They gave us the exact number of students we could recognize at one time, they issued the tickets to us and they gave us the guidelines that we must follow in the arena," he said. "With this information, we were able to develop a plan to hold multiple ceremonies and give students an opportunity to have family members present to celebrate their special day."
Schools may be able to have in-person ceremonies at Bud Walton, but Dostal said there are still some traditional aspects of the ceremonies that remain unfeasible for now.
"We are discouraging handshakes and hugging during the ceremony," he said. "This will be tough because this is a celebration of a major milestone for our kids."
Rogers High School and Heritage High School will both have two ceremonies Friday. Rogers New Technology High School's ceremony is set for Wednesday.
Rogers has 1,094 graduates this year, said Charles Lee, general administration assistant superintendent. Each school offered drive-through ceremonies for students to receive diplomas and virtual ceremonies that were posted to school websites last year, he said.
Springdale High School will have two ceremonies and Har-Ber High School will have three on Saturday. Students will receive a diploma while crossing the stage at Bud Walton, but processionals and recessionals aren't permitted for safety reasons, said Shannon Tisher, Springdale's curriculum, instruction and innovation assistant superintendent for grades 8-12.
Springdale's Archer Learning Center will hold two ceremonies Friday at Springdale High. Tyson School of Innovation, which celebrated its first graduating class two years ago at the school, will have two commencements May 16 in the school's new Performing Arts Center, said Trent Jones, Springdale's director of communications.
Springdale will honor 1,515 graduates, according to Tisher. The district live-streamed personalized senior specials for each high school in 2020.
Fayetteville High School has three ceremonies scheduled for Thursday for its 768 graduates, according to administrators. The district last year offered a walk-through ceremony in its Performing Arts Center, as well as a virtual graduation ceremony for 2020 graduates.
The pandemic has introduced some graduation practices that may endure, Morrow said.
"Prior to the pandemic we were not live-streaming commencement and other senior events," she said. "We are now live-streaming all of these events, and this increases the participation by family and friends all around the world who cannot otherwise travel to the event or attend in person."
Dostal said he hopes schools will be able to fully return to traditional graduation ceremonies in 2022.
"My hope would be that we could go back to a normal graduation ceremony with all the students graduating together and all the pomp and circumstance that goes with it," he said.
Wednesday, May 12
6 p.m.: Rogers New Technology High School — Bud Walton Arena, 1270 Leroy Pond Drive, Fayetteville
Thursday, May 13
2 p.m.: Fayetteville High School (Last names Q-Z) — Bud Walton Arena, 1270 Leroy Pond Drive, Fayetteville
4:30 p.m.: Fayetteville High School (Last names H-P) — Bud Walton Arena, 1270 Leroy Pond Drive, Fayetteville
7 p.m.: Fayetteville High School (Last names A-G) — Bud Walton Arena, 1270 Leroy Pond Drive, Fayetteville
Friday, May 14
12:30 and 3 p.m.: Rogers High School — Bud Walton Arena, 1270 Leroy Pond Drive, Fayetteville
5 p.m.: Thaden School — Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, 600 Museum Way, Bentonville
5:30 and 8 p.m.: Rogers Heritage High School — Bud Walton Arena, 1270 Leroy Pond Drive, Fayetteville
6 p.m.: Archer Learning Center (Last names A-K) — Springdale High School Performing Arts Center, 101 S. Pleasant St., Springdale
7 p.m.: Elkins High School — John Bunch Jr. Memorial Field, 349 N. Center St., Elkins
7 p.m.: Life Way Christian School — 351 W. Centerton Blvd., Centerton
7:30 p.m.: Archer Learning Center (Last names L-Z) — Springdale High School Performing Arts Center, 101 S. Pleasant St., Springdale
Saturday, May 15
8 a.m.: Bentonville High School — Tiger Stadium, 1702 S.E. J St., Bentonville
9 a.m.: Springdale High School (Last names A-K) — Bud Walton Arena, 1270 Leroy Pond Drive, Fayetteville
11:30 a.m.: Springdale High School (Last names L-Z) — Bud Walton Arena, 1270 Leroy Pond Drive, Fayetteville
2 p.m.: Har-Ber High School (Last names A-F) — Bud Walton Arena, 1270 Leroy Pond Drive, Fayetteville
4:30 p.m.: Har-Ber High School (Last names G-N) — Bud Walton Arena, 1270 Leroy Pond Drive, Fayetteville
7 p.m.: Har-Ber High School (Last names O-Z) — Bud Walton Arena, 1270 Leroy Pond Drive, Fayetteville
7 p.m.: Bentonville West High School — Wolverine Stadium, 1351 Gamble Road, Centerton
Sunday, May 16
1 p.m.: Don Tyson School of Innovation (Last names A-K) — Performing Arts Center, 2667 Hylton Road, Springdale
3 p.m.: Don Tyson School of Innovation (Last names L-Z-) — Performing Arts Center, 2667 Hylton Road, Springdale
3 p.m.: Siloam Springs High School — Panther Stadium, 700 N. Progress Ave., Siloam Springs
7:30 p.m.: Greenland High School — Jonathan Ramey Memorial Stadium, 10 North Main Ave., Greenland
Tuesday, May 18
7 p.m.: Shiloh Christian School — Worship Center at Cross Church, 1709 Johnson Road, Springdale
Friday, May 21
6 p.m.: The New School — The New School, 2514 New School Place, Fayetteville
Saturday, May 22
10 a.m.: Ozark Catholic Academy — The Jones Center, 922 E. Emma Ave., Springdale
6 p.m.: West Fork High School — West Fork High School Football Field, 359 School Ave., West Fork
Sunday, May 23
2 p.m.: Northwest Arkansas Classical Academy — Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, 600 Museum Way, Bentonville
Tuesday, June 1
8:45 p.m.: Haas Hall Academy — 112 Drive-In, 3552 AR-112, Fayetteville
Friday, June 4
7 p.m.: Arkansas Arts Academy — Arkansas Arts Academy, 506 W. Poplar St., Rogers
Source: NWA Democrat-Gazette