Walking across a stage to receive a diploma is a time-honored tradition. So when Central Algoma Secondary School, or CASS, in Ontario, was forced to cancel its graduation ceremony due to COVID-19 restrictions, one teacher came up with an ingenious solution. Ray Gowlett, a health and physical education teacher, constructed a mobile graduation stage. Then, over the course of a weekend, he drove the pop-up stage to the homes of 72 graduating seniors, holding a series of mini ceremonies.
To add authenticity to the makeshift stage, Gowlett worked with a local graphics shop to create a print version of a CASS tapestry that has the school’s logo, which made for a perfect photo backdrop. The stage was also decorated with flowers for portable pomp and circumstance. In the photo below, Gowlett, and fellow teacher Julie Robinson, presented a diploma to graduate Erika Beitz.
Katrina Beaulieu, another recent CASS graduate, told Simplemost that the graduation ceremony was the first time her family had gathered since the start of the pandemic. Her neighbors, from their driveways, cheered her on as her name was called and as she received end-of-school merit awards.
“It was a big moment,” she said. “It felt like a light at the end of the tunnel.”
The idea for a mobile graduation stage came about in conversations between Gowlett and his daughter Sadie, who graduated from CASS this year. She asked her father to hand out degrees to her and a friend at an outdoor public stage. During the conversation with her dad, she expressed how much her peers would appreciate a similar experience and that they’d too want to pose for graduation photos on a stage.
“That’s when the wheels started turning,” Gowlett told Simplemost. “I thought, ‘We can’t get every person to walk across the stage so let’s bring a stage to every person.’”
Gowlett, who is a graduate of CASS and has been teaching at the school for more than two decades, got the green light to move forward with the reimagined plan from the graduation committee. From there, he constructed a stage in six hours and members of the school and community helped out with logistics behind the scenes.
The graduation route covered nearly 250 miles over the course of a Saturday and Sunday. With single-use graduation gowns and crowds capped at 10 people, the ceremonies were COVID-compliant.
Since the onset of the pandemic, Gowlett says he’s seen his students adapt and persevere as they switched to a virtual learning format and missed out on sports seasons and dances. The students and their families were grateful for the at-home graduation ceremonies.
“We saw joy and love and hope and happiness,” he says. “It was powerful; there were a lot of tears.”