If it were any other year, students, parents, grandparents and anyone else going to Milton High School’s graduation would have one question: What’s the weather going to be like?
When it’s not raining, the graduation is held outside. Last year, when it was sunny and warm, an estimated 3,000 people attended.
“With my luck, it will be a 100% year,” Principal Jeremy Bilhorn said. “A 100% year is when it’s 100% rain or 100% not, and the decision is easier.”
With a virtual ceremony going online at 2 p.m. Sunday, weather isn’t a worry.
The decisions involved were a bit more complex: not only where but when and how, with the governor issuing a safer-at-home order, extending that order, the Wisconsin Supreme Court striking down the order and then Rock County issuing and lifting its own order.
“Our guidelines and understanding of COVID-19 continued to change,” Bilhorn said.
He wrote down several principles to guide the decision-making.
“We wanted to do our part in the community to keep our students, our staff, our public safe,” he said.
“We needed to be able to honor our graduates. The graduates deserve the honor. This is a milestone event,” he said. “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.”
The administrative team looked at a drive-thru scenario, a parade and even a traditional ceremony not on school district property. The team worked with the county health department and attorneys and took parents’ input to heart.
Students were given three options. The most popular was picking up their diplomas and walking across the stage in the gymnasium—150 students chose that. Ninety-two received their diplomas in the mail, and 18 had their diplomas delivered to their homes.
Bilhorn and Associate Principal Tara Huber drove “Clifford the Big Red Van” to students’ homes.
Bilhorn said he enjoyed being able to present the diplomas and give each senior that special moment.
“I felt like the Prize Patrol,” he said. “All I needed was balloons and a big check. It was fun.”
But he will miss the traditional ceremony: feeling the energy of the crowd, seeing the graduates enjoy being celebrated, watching them as they walk across the stage.
“It’s professionally the best day of my year every single year,” he said.
This year, the high school had what administrators and staff called the “five days of graduation.” Diplomas were handed out Tuesday through Saturday the week of May 25.
With families arriving at school at scheduled times, he said, “I got more time to talk with parents than ever before. Even if it’s a five-minute conversation, you don’t get that at a regular graduation.”
Opportunities to take photos of graduates were never better. Parents could walk right down the center aisle as their graduates crossed the stage, past chairs with photos of the Class of 2020, and stand there without blocking anyone.
“I don’t think this class has 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 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 the 260 graduates will be shown in a virtual ceremony shared at 2 p.m. Sunday on the Red Hawk Media YouTube channel.
“I hope people watch the ceremony on June 7,” Bilhorn said. “There’s a lot that’s going into it.”