How to Plan and Execute a Virtual Graduation Experience that Truly Honors Seniors
Mia Major

If (or when) you cancel graduation, chances are your community won't be surprised, but there's bound to be much disappointment. 

Graduation and commencement ceremonies are the most significant milestone of every school, and for seniors missing out on this pivotal experience due to the COVID-19 pandemic is nothing short of earth-shattering (just read this article from Vox). 

So your alternative plans (and communications around those plans), with a little pomp and circumstance, should include ways for students and their families to celebrate each other, say their goodbyes, and look to the future with hope and resilience.

So what can you do?

Step 1: Create a Plan B

While most schools and districts are waiting until the last minute to make the call, having a contingency plan in place is essential. This contingency plan may include a new type of graduation ceremony or a postponed ceremony with some supplemental celebrations.

So, the first step in your new graduation plans shouldn’t actually be making the announcement, it should be making the plans for what you’re doing instead

While postponing graduation seems to be a popular option at educational institutions at the moment — but for students who don’t live near school — university graduates, boarding students and those leaving the area to further their education — simply rescheduling graduation might not be easy. And unfortunately, we just don’t know when it will be a good time for large gatherings. 

So what can you offer as an additional celebration? 

Here are a few virtual graduation ideas:

Honor seniors on social media

We hope you had plans in place to do this anyways, but use the time now to honor your seniors (daily!) on social media. It's a great way to build community during a time of isolation, and provides a sense of "normalcy" — which is what everyone is craving right now.

For example, Grace Christian Academy in Knoxville, TN features senior photos with some "get to know the senior" information. It's a great way to celebrate their time at the school — and it's going to get a ton of organic engagement.

grace christian academy senior feature

Rotterdam International Secondary School in the Netherlands has created a "Hall of Fame" on their Instagram. "We’ve been doing a ‘Wall of Fame’ on our social media in the stories. We post around 4 students a day, with their senior quote, favorite memory, what they will miss and what’s next," shared the school's Communication and Admission Officer in our School Marketing Community on Facebook. You can view the series of stories on their saved highlight reel here.

riss-hall of fame

Leysin American School is also honoring seniors on their Instagram stories. "We’ve been honoring our seniors by posting a few every week on social media. At the end we will make a video to share," said the school's PR and Marketing Manager. You can view the series of stories here.

leysin american school instagram highlights

Host a virtual event

While it won’t have the same impact as an in-person graduation, still holding a ceremony on the same day can be done. One of the greatest advantages of a virtual graduation event is the ability to bring in additional speakers who may not have been able to travel. Recruit noteworthy alumni, parents, and other community leaders to complete an epic speaker line-up to make students feel inspired about their next chapter. 

Depending on COVID-19 social distancing regulations, you may be able to get some of your speakers together in a single location to livestream the event as well.

Looking for a step-by-step guide for your school’s virtual graduation ceremony? Check out this blog from our partner, LocalLive: 5 Steps to an Online Commencement.

Incorporate senior traditions

If possible, seek ways to incorporate normal senior year and graduation traditions into your virtual celebrations. For example, if your school normally does a group photo of students donning sweatshirts from their college acceptances — ask students to take their own photo and submit it to be featured on the website.

Graduation cap decorating contest

Allow seniors to still order their cap and gowns, and encourage them to decorate them, and wear them for your alternative celebrations and post them on social media.

Deliver diplomas

Take note from Southern New Hampshire University, who has famously delivered degrees to graduates across the country for years now. While the university’s degrees are delivered to groups of about 20 graduates, it’s an inspiring idea for day schools and districts where all graduates are local. While this feat might be easiest for smaller graduating classes, we can’t help but feel inspired by the personal approach. Deliver the diplomas prior to the ceremony, yearbooks if they are ready, along with a graduation cap for students to decorate and wear during the virtual ceremony. We know it’s not the same, but the extra effort will be duly noted — it certainly was for Briarwood Christian School's class of 2020.

Briarwood Christian School in Birmingham, AL surprised 143 seniors with hand delivered party packs that included yearbooks, caps and gowns, cookies, alumni event passes, and a Briarwood beach towel for their summer days ahead. Watch the video here.

Host a Graduation parade

We’re seeing parades pop up all over social media for a variety of reasons — birthdays, prayers, awards, for the sake of keeping spirits up, you name it. Keeping social distancing practices in mind, consider how you can honor graduates with a celebratory parade.

Create senior care packages

Finding a way to give back to the community while also lifting the spirits of seniors is a win-win. Partner with a local bakery to create “senior care packages” to be sent to graduates on graduation day. We’re seeing small businesses across the country partner with both schools and first-responders to offer this service.

Film the ceremony in advance

Who says every graduation needs to be streamed live? Schools and districts can follow social distancing practices and still allow students to walk across stage in their cap and gown. How exactly?

  • Hire a video company, use your in-house videographer, or get a volunteer within the community with video experience to film the advance ceremony.
  • Set up time slots for seniors to come to the school and be filmed walking across the stage, following social distancing best practices.
  • Interview all students about their favorite memory about the school, or their senior year.
  • Compile the video clips into a video to be presented online, or at a safe facility — such as fair grounds or a drive-in theatre.

Clinton High School in Arkansas is taking this approach. They've teamed up with a local drive-in movie theatre to air the video on the original graduation night. Each family will get two tickets to view the ceremony from their cars — which are encouraged to be decorated! 

Create a feel-good video to show at the event

Crowdsource content from your seniors to highlight all the good memories from their senior year, and compile all videos and photos into a single 3-5 minute video to show at the beginning of the graduation. In addition to crowdsourcing content from your community, you can also ask parents to send in well-wishes to include. 

Need inspiration? While this video isn’t for a graduation ceremony, this completely crowdsourced video Blair Academy shared on their Instagram definitely gets you “right in the feels.”

We understand that none of these options are the “same” as the typical graduation ceremony, but we encourage you and your team to plan ahead and get alternative celebrations in place so that your seniors feel celebrated. If possible, get input from your seniors or senior parents so you know how they want to celebrate.

Is Your Website Ready for 2020+? Build your school's digital campus today.

Step 2: Create Excitement and Engagement with a Virtual Graduation Microsite

If your team simply sends an email with a Zoom invite for a virtual graduation, engagement will be flat. Everything is virtual right now — so what can you do to make your virtual graduation event appear to be much more of an experience than just a series of talking heads on Zoom?

First, give the virtual graduation ceremony its own area of your website—whether it’s a built-out microsite or just a landing page, add it to your main navigation or create a call-to-action for it. You want to show your prospective and current families that you’re delivering a high-quality experience for graduates that everyone can be excited about.

Here’s what your microsite or landing page should include:

Featured Graduation Speakers

Promote your ceremony speaker line-up. Aside from walking across the stage and receiving a diploma, speeches by guest speakers, faculty and students are the second most anticipated part of the day. 

Most importantly, proceed as usual with selecting student speakers, and highlight them with the same respect as you would guest speakers.

Because this virtual event opens up new opportunities to bring in guest speakers from across the country (or world), bringing unexpected voices can be a big draw for your community. Time to tap those famous alumni!

our speakers section screenshot

Class of 2020 Graduate Photos and Bios

Give seniors the recognition they deserve! At this point, many seniors have already had their senior photos taken (and have been shared with the yearbook committee), so ask them to submit them along with a bio, and fun facts. Think of it as a living, breathing yearbook!

If you use Finalsite, you can use Posts or Constituent Manager to easily share graduate photos and bios. If you opt to use Posts, you’ll be able to add some additional filters, such as student-athlete, National Honors Society, membership in other clubs, awards, etc. Another cool feature for using Posts — enabling comments! Then, parents, friends and family members can leave (moderated) comments to one another.

meet the class of 2020

Create a place for parents and friends to share well-wishes

One way to create a sense of community, even when far apart, is to provide more open avenues of communication. We’re seeing many schools use a tool called “Padlet” which allows website visitors to write notes to one another on a public board. 

The content can easily be embedded on any website, and provides parents, family near and far, and friends to all write heart-warming public messages of encouragement to one another.

through the years section of a graduation website

Share Livestream details

Give your community an easy way to register and save the date. (This means avoiding a very long form for them to complete!) By submitting their name and email, you can add them to a list to receive automated emails with event updates, login information, and more.

congratulations class of 2020

Social Media Integration

If you already have a hashtag for your senior class, encourage seniors to use it on their social media channels to automatically aggregate content for your Class of 2020 website page. If you don’t already have one, create something new so your community can share their experiences with one another via social media.

Step 3: Make the Announcement

Messaging is everything — especially when it comes to “breaking some bad news.” So, when you make the announcement about your school’s decision for proceeding with graduation ceremonies (whether you decide on a postponement, a creative Plan B, or both), it’s important that you both acknowledge that you know this isn’t the same, but what is the same is the celebration of an accomplishment.

example email from a college to students about commencement plans

For making the announcement, we recommend creating a video, instead of just sending a plain text email.

Once the video has been sent via email to your community, post it on your website. You can use a PagePop on your homepage and in community portals to ensure it's seen by your constituent groups.

For social media, make a slightly different version of the video that invites everyone to view and join in on the celebrations. 

Check out a walk-through of a Finalsite graduation microsite in this video!

Key Takeaway

COVID-19 has forever changed our world — and everything you do now will impact the success of your school in the future. And that includes how you handled graduation ceremonies.

At this point, hope is not a plan. You cannot hope that social distancing regulations and curfews get lifted. You cannot hope that students come back in time for a regular ceremony. Unfortunately, with things changing by the day, having a Plan A and a Plan B in place for graduation is essential. 

As your school puts contingency plans in place, we encourage you to think about how these changes are not just for the class of 2020, but for the class of 2021 and beyond.

Click here to learn how you can build your digital campus


Mia Major

As Finalsite's public school marketing manager, Mia plans and executes a variety of inbound marketing and digital content strategies. As a former TV and news reporter, freelance cinematographer and certified inbound marketer, Mia specializes in helping schools find new ways to share their stories online through web design, social media, copywriting, photography and videography. She is the author of numerous blogs, eBooks, and reports, including Finalsite's Inbound Marketing Benchmark Report.

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