Upper School Commencement and Middle School Promotion Ceremonies Undergo Modifications to Meet Social Distancing Requirements


The Class of 2018 graduates and celebrates during their reception ceremony. This year, the post-commencement reception will not happen, and the commencement ceremony will take place at the Circus Club. Photo courtesy of Tripp Robbins.

Sylvie Venuto and Emily Han

Senior commencement and eighth grade promotion ceremonies have been adjusted this year to comply with San Mateo County Department of Health social distancing requirements. Administrators, parents and student leaders have been developing plans for these events since Menlo closed in March. Updated restrictions on May 8, which banned in-person ceremonies, resulted in particularly significant revisions to the then-developing plans, according to Dean of Students Tony Lapolla.

Upper School senior commencement plans originally included an alumni family welcome and photoshoot on Wednesday, June 3, as well as an in-person but physically-distanced commencement ceremony on the Loop on June 4. According to Lapolla, the school received permission from the County Department of Health to proceed with the alumni photo event because each distinct family would be six feet away from the other families.

However, the school will no longer conduct the ceremony on the Loop, where all 143 seniors would have been able to attend in person while maintaining six feet between themselves and other students, while family members and guests would have been excluded.

“Now we’re doing a drive-in ceremony at the Circus Club where people will be in closed cars so that they will not be interacting with each other, and we will be doing a commencement ceremony that will be very similar to what our normal commencement ceremony is,” Lapolla said. Families will be able to roll down their car windows to hear the ceremony. This approach, Lapolla said, complies with county social distancing requirements.

The drive-in event is scheduled for Thursday, June 4. The faculty speaker this year will be math and computer science teacher Michael Thibodeaux, according to Senior Dean Chris Young. Thibodeaux is retiring this year after having taught at Menlo for 44 years.

Sacred Heart Prep held a similar senior commencement ceremony at the Circus Club on Friday, May 22, according to Lapolla. “Circus Club has [a] large field, and they were gracious enough to grant both [Menlo and Sacred Heart] permission to do it there,” he said.

Lapolla and Young met with senior student leaders in early May to gather student input on the drive-in commencement idea. “I think most of us said that we would prefer to be in our cars all together and do the drive-in option,” Senior Class President Eavan Murray said.

The ceremony at the Circus Club will take place on the polo field, and the setup will consist of large video screens, an audio system and space for one car per family, according to Lapolla.

“It’ll be a mix of live stuff and recorded stuff,” Young said. “There will be an actual stage, but then there will [also] be screens strategically placed, so people should have a good view wherever they are.”

“The current plan is to have […] a picture of [each senior] and their name in print go up on the screen, and it would create a moment for everyone to clap and see an image of the person, but it wouldn’t be that person actually walking across the stage,” he said.

Due to the unusual nature of this year’s ceremony, the school is reallocating certain parts of its budget for the event. “There are different things we have to do at the Circus Club that we didn’t have to do at our place,” Lapolla said. “I would think that the cost would be similar, that we’re just reallocating our funds to different places.”

According to Young, one of the biggest expenses in past years has been the post-ceremony reception, which will not be occurring this year. However, Menlo now needs to pay for the video screen and the sound system. Production costs will constitute the largest portion of the budget this year, Lapolla said.

Lapolla noted that although commencement will be unique this year, it is intended to be equally impactful and significant as in previous years. “Commencement is something that’s important to the School and important to the families,” he said. “We have always thought that [it] should be done the right way, and I think we’re going to be fine in that regard.”

There will also be a virtual advocacy farewell on Tuesday, June 2. The senior show, which has been modified to be a digital production this year, will be released at 6:15 immediately following advocacy farewells.

Eighth grade promotion will also be altered this year. In the past, it has consisted of a ceremony with the students and their parents gathered on the Middle School quad with lanterns, balloons and a stage. Head of School Than Healy, Middle School Director La Vina Lowery and the Middle School student co-presidents customarily deliver speeches. The highlight of the event has traditionally been the tributes to students that teachers read out loud as each eighth grader receives their certificate.

This year, promotion will take place via a pre-recorded videocast and will include the usual speeches by Healy, Lowery and Middle School co-presidents Brooke Stroh and Chris Donnelly, which families can watch from their homes, Middle School Assistant Director Mima Takemoto said. Student tributes will also occur virtually, according to Takemoto.

On June 2, eighth grade families will have an opportunity to drive through the Loop to pick up promotion certificates. “We’re going to try to make it festive, and all the eighth grade advocates will be there with office staff,” Takemoto said. “We’re going to cheer cars as they come around the Loop, wave and try to celebrate them, and we’re going to have balloons and music.”

Despite the unexpected circumstances of recent months, administrators hope to still use commencement and promotion ceremonies as a way to celebrate students. “The [Class of 2020] has lost so much. I think that these events can give them some things back and let them celebrate a little bit,” Lapolla said.

“This is going to stand out, historically, as this moment where the Class of 2020 — not just at Menlo but across the country — had to do something different,” Young said. “It’s a bit of Menlo history that’s being made.”

For Murray, the pandemic conditions created a high-pressure but also hopeful opportunity for the senior commencement ceremony. “I think the hardest part was trying to do what the most people will think is best and what most people will be happy with,” she said. “It’s obviously a big milestone in everyone’s life, and no one wants to mess it up for everyone, and everyone just wants to do the best that we can for the class.”