story by Natalie Mazey | photography Megan Miranda | infographic Rachel Anderson
The class of 2021 has experienced a senior year like no other, but the Lakota District is working to provide as much normalcy as possible as the seniors celebrate finishing their K-12 education.
A committee composed of both East and West principals, the superintendent, and the assistant superintendent have been constantly meeting since February to discuss how the district can make things work for seniors. As COVID-19 restrictions have changed, so has the feasibility of large gatherings like Prom and graduation.
”When you’re in a different role, you typically have a different lens,” East Principal Dr. Yejide Mack said. “Everybody on that team has really good input because everybody has worked with students K-12, and they know generally what these events entail.”
Superintendent Matt Miller recognizes this year has encompassed many challenges, as teachers, students, and parents have adapted to life with COVID-19 still present.
“Events [like Prom and graduation] are important milestones for our seniors,” Miller said. “We want them to be able to experience the traditions that come with being a senior.”
East’s graduations took place at the Cintas Center on May 19 at 5 and 8 p.m., with students with last names beginning with A-L attending the earlier ceremony and students with last names M-Z attending the latter. West’s graduations followed the same format on May 21 at 5 and 8 p.m and will also be held at the Cintas Center.
“In Lakota, East does typically have to match West,” Dr. Mack said. “East and West have stayed in constant communication about what we want to see, what we can do, and how we can make that work. If things don’t work out, we can figure out what to do in place.”
Lakota chose to hold multiple ceremonies for each school in order to allow for multiple attendees. Each student will be given four paper tickets, and assigned seating will be arranged in pods of four to allow for adequate social distancing. Additionally, masks or face coverings were required for all those in attendance, and hand sanitizer was readily available. Attendees were encouraged to complete a health assessment before attending.
“Students will get to see their friends walking across the stage and think she did it, he did it, we did this together,” Dr. Mack said. “It is going to be a different feel this year for graduation as well as Prom, but in terms of the rules that we are governed by, we were able to make that happen as the students really enjoy.”
Fifty-seven percent of students, including East senior Delaney Senger, were unhappy with the plan for graduation, according to a Spark survey.
“I’ve grown up with all these people. I’ve gone to Lakota for every year of my schooling, and I don’t get to graduate with all of my friends,” Senger said. “We’ve all grown up eager to graduate with our friends because we’ve seen siblings go through that whole process. I’m just grateful to at least have it, it’s better than what the seniors got last year.”
The senior student body as a whole was not asked to provide input on what they would like their graduation to look like, which left some seniors like Lindsay Patton feeling disappointed.
“I wish it was all together,” Patton said. “I think we would have been fine with two tickets, and everyone doing it together, but they didn’t ask our opinion.”
In developing graduation plans, the Lakota district has worked closely with the Cintas Center to ensure protocols are followed.
“Safety is always our number one priority in anything we do and this year is certainly no exception,” Miller said. “Limiting the number of attendees to follow social distancing and mandatory masks are certainly two top priorities.”
Cap and Gowns
When seniors went to pick up their cap and gowns for graduation, they were shocked to see that everyone in the class of 2021 would be receiving a black cap and gown. Typically, girls wear white and boys wear black. The senior class was not notified of the change until the cap and gowns were in their hands.
“The senior group chat was blowing up. I didn’t really know why it got changed. But if it had to do with gender [like rumors were saying], I thought that everyone should be able to pick whichever one they wanted,” Patterson said. “I was upset because we paid for white gowns and then they gave us black gowns, so it wasn’t what we all paid for. It shouldn’t have been an issue in the first place. It could have been completely avoided.”
In an email to East students and parents, Dr. Mack explained the decision was made in an effort to encourage Thunderhawk pride. The decision was made at the building level, leaving some seniors feeling blindsided.
“Why change tradition after it has been going on so long? It’s something so simple that could have just stayed the same,” Senger said. “After the year we’ve had, we really just wanted normalcy. Something as small as the color really affected us because it’s just another thing that isn’t normal.”
Lakota’s vendor, Herff Jones Graduate Services, confirmed that the seniors who ordered white caps and gowns will receive them, with distribution scheduled for May 12.
“I was shocked to hear the news because it’s been a 20-plus-year standing tradition at the school,” East senior Ellie Ford said. “I’m glad Matt Miller changed it. He didn’t even know [about it] so I think it was the right thing to do.”
Lack of communication within the district left an uproar of upset students who paid for their caps and gowns.
“[Central Office] was informed by students and parents,” Miller said. “We understand that traditions surrounding graduation are important to our families and staff. Before a change like this would occur, input from our seniors and their families would be necessary.”
East’s Prom took place in Hamilton County and West’s will take place in Butler County; because both schools are located in Butler County, East and West had to submit a Prom plan to the Butler County Health Department. Students will be required to wear masks and stay seated if they aren’t dancing. These guidelines are outlined in a document both students and parents must sign before students attend the event.
“Each student who plans to attend and their parents will have to sign a document saying ‘I understand that these are the rules that are governing us to allow us to have this’,” Dr. Mack said. “It’s just a way for us to remind students of rules that everybody is probably already following, but we’re required to make sure that we communicate those rules to everybody.”
East’s prom took place on May 8 with tickets being sold online from Apr. 21-May 5 at the Sharonville Convention Center. No after prom will be held to comply with COVID-19 guidelines, and the $45 cost to attend will come with a T-shirt.
Dr. Mack explains that the senior activities are more than just events to many graduates, as they mark how far students have come and where their future will take them.
“[Prom and Graduation] are culminating events. It’s a really good opportunity for us to celebrate with each other,” Dr. Mack told Spark. “Graduation is typically for parents to see their kids walk across the stage, and then Prom is typical for students to celebrate with their friends that they’ve had a great year.”
In a Spark survey, 63% of East seniors are planning on attending Prom. While students are excited that this event will be held in person, some are upset that attendance is limited only to seniors currently attending East.
“The thing that has bothered me is that we’re not allowed to bring guests, meanwhile other schools are,” Ford said. “I get that we’re a big school, however, with proper precautions, I feel like it would be possible. I really can’t complain though because seniors last year didn’t get anything.”
Senior Picnic and Baccalaureate
The senior picnic, open to all seniors, took place on May 13 after M-Z graduation practice, hosted by the East Parent Teacher Student Organization (PTSO). Although food must be individually disinfected and everything must be disinfected in between serving, the event will largely look like it has in the past according to chair of both the Baccalaureate Ceremony and Senior Picnic Kathleen Strack.
“[Seniors have] missed out on so much this year. It’s been such a hard year, not what a typical senior year should look like,” Strack said. “It will just be nice to actually have a little bit of normalcy. The senior picnic, unlike graduation, will let the whole class be together.”
Strack notes that because the senior picnic was originally cancelled, planning was a challenge, especially because no money was budgeted for, at the time, a nonexistent event. Usually, the planning process would last months, but the planning committee had mere weeks to make it come together.
The Class of 2021 Baccalaureate Ceremony, again open to all seniors, was held on May 18 at Liberty Heights Church. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, only 450 people will be able to attend this non-denominational event that students have the opportunity to sing or speak at. The ceremony is not regulated by the district, leaving much decision making up to the PTSO.
“The first challenge was finding a place to have it,” Strack said. “Baccalaureate initially was canceled before another mom and I took it over, so we had to find a venue pretty quickly.”
Miller explained that despite the numerous challenges Lakota has faced in planning these events, students and families have mostly supported the decisions that have been made.
“We know that some of our students and families have been disappointed,” Miller said. “But every decision has been made with the safety of our students and staff in mind.”
Miller knows getting to walk across the stage at the Cintas Center is something seniors look forward to years in advance; getting this opportunity allows for a concrete close to their K-12 education.
“It’s important that we are able to give the Class of 2021 some sort of ‘normal,’” Miller said. “There have certainly been numerous challenges that they have met in the past year. Now it is time to celebrate in a safe manner.”