May 13, 2020
With in-person graduation ceremonies and proms cancelled, many New York City high schools are scrambling to preserve a few rites of passage: caps, gowns and yearbooks.
“We’re looking for ways to celebrate our students and bring some normalcy back to their lives,” said Jeff Chetirko, the principal of the UA New York Harbor School on Governor’s Island. “They deserve to be able to celebrate with everything they’re entitled to and have paid for.”
Getting the graduation regalia into students’ hands is proving more complicated than expected — and not just because of the virus.
Under normal circumstances, schools collect money for graduation items from students’ senior dues, order them from outside vendors, and distribute them at school.
With their buildings shut down during the pandemic, many schools asked vendors to ship the caps, gowns and yearbooks directly to students’ homes. But that plan bumped up against the Education Department’s student privacy rules.
Federal law bars the Education Department from disclosing students’ addresses without their permission, officials said. And even if a student does give permission, city officials say, state law requires the department to make sure the address won’t be used for marketing or advertising purposes.
Both conditions have to be met in order for vendors to ship directly to students’ homes.
“We are aware of this issue and are working with vendors and impacted schools to ship items and make sure students can keep these traditions alive now that school buildings are closed,” said Education Department spokeswoman Katie O’Hanlon.
With buildings shut down during the pandemic, many schools asked vendors to ship caps, gowns and yearbooks directly to students’ homes. (ShutterStock)
The privacy restrictions leave schools with few easy options for delivering the traditional end-of-year materials.
“A lot of us have been struggling with what to do,” a public high school teacher said on condition of anonymity.
“How else are we supposed to get items to students given that schools are shut down?”
The Harbor School plans to ship the regalia to the homes of teachers across the five boroughs, Chetirko said. Teachers will then package the graduation gear and personally deliver it to the homes of students who live nearby.
Whatever the method, educators agree on the importance of the mission. Many students have already put down funds for caps, gowns and yearbooks, and refunding them is even more complicated amid the pandemic.
And even if graduation ceremonies won’t happen in person, many schools plan virtual commencements where students can wear their gowns and caps. Students at the Harbor School plan virtual meetings to brainstorm how to decorate the waterboards of their graduation caps — an annual tradition at the school.
With all the disruptions of the past few months, “we would like to have some type of uniform experience,” Chetirko said.