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Graduation in the time of COVID-19

Masha Scheele
Local Journalism Initiative

The Class of 2020 faced unique pressures and uncertainties during pandemic

High School graduation ceremonies have been adapted across the country to fit with the restrictions around the COVID-19 pandemic.

And much like the ceremonies had to change to adapt to COVID reality, Grade 12 students also had to adjust as they plan to move on to the next stage of life.

Joshua Litke is a Grade 12 student at Father Gerard Redmond Community Catholic School who expects to finish all his courses and begin university this fall like he originally planned.

He said everyone was initally a little worried about graduation and diploma exams made everyone nervous since in-school classes were cancelled.

“Our teachers really took everything in stride, they were able to get us on track to finish the courses on time,” Litke said.

He applauds his teachers for the work they’ve done to make sure their students have the information they need to finish each course.

“Our physics teacher got us done really early and didn’t have to trim anything from the curriculum. He did a really great job, he had a website and he put together videos,” Litke added.

Option courses like band were cut, which was disappointing, but Litke continued to take trombone and classical guitar lessons offered by his music teacher. The hardest course to finish online was social studies, Litke added, because the discussion component of the course is so vital.

Lisa Fitzgerald, a teacher at St. Gregory Catholic School, whose daughter is graduating high school at Gerard Redmond, agreed that the high school teachers did a really good job at connecting with students right away to let them know they were going to work this out.

“They have provided lots of online classes for them. Once they got into the routine of things it went fairly smoothly,” Fitzgerald said.

Gerard is having a finals week where many classes will be writing a final exam, though the weight of this will most likely not be as heavy as if they wrote an in-school final. 

Barb Marchant, assistant principal at Gerard Redmond, said Grade 12 students wrote some of their diplomas in January, which are part of their transcript.

Glen Allen, principal of Harry Collinge High School, explained that some courses will have a traditional final exam and others will finish off with a final project.

Grande Yellowhead Public School Division (GYPSD) staff looked at the weighting of final exams and projects and lowered the weight to a maximum of 10 per cent of the final course mark, Allen added.

Normally finals can be up to 30 per cent of the final mark, depending on the grade level.

Allen said teachers are able to assess their students’ knowledge of the course material virtually through programs like Google classroom, which locks down the computer and doesn’t allow students to access other sources when writing a test.

Project based final assessments can also demonstrate key concepts learned in the courses.

“It will be a bit more holistic and more authentic in the sense that it’s not just a multiple choice test,” Allen said.

He added that assessment and learning evidence prior to the school closures and continued remote learning will allow teachers to assess whether the students have the information necessary to grant credit in that course.

“Teachers have continued to provide lessons and learning opportunities, students have continued to try and keep up with demonstrating knowledge of those new ideas,” Allen said.

He added that the vast majority of students at HCHS are going to successfully complete the courses they were enrolled in this semester. 

The provincial government gave principals the ability to award up to 15 credits to students in Grade 12 whose program was negatively impacted by class cancellations. 

Grade 12 diploma exams were cancelled through to the end of June 2020, but under special circumstances students could still request to write a diploma exam.

“To expect that kids in Alberta are on a level playing field, we have them all write diploma exams I believe would be simply unfair. It would be unfair to the teachers who are judged by those results. The diploma exams would not be an accurate reflection of what a kid knew or didn’t know this current year,” Allen said.

Fitzgerald doesn’t believe her daughter will be at a disadvantage as she starts her Bachelor of Political Science at the University of Alberta in September.

“She only needed two courses this semester. She was very fortunate, she didn’t have a heavy workload. I think if she needed physics or math for a science degree or something it would have been more concerning for sure,’ Fitzgerald said.

The university already indicated they would be offering classes online in the fall.

Fitzgerald said a big discussion around whether her daughter should go to school in the fall was based on if it was safe to go, what the university would do for her safety, and what would happen if the virus got worse.

Since classes are online, her daughter will stay in Hinton at least for the fall semester.

“It’s not the best situation, unfortunately you don’t experience going away to college and university but it’s being done for a reason,” she added.

Litke also plans to go to the U of A after graduation for a Bachelor Degree in Science with a specialization in pharmacology, the study of drugs. 

He briefly questioned whether to move forward with those plans when COVID-19 first shut down the schools, but he’s happy he chose to forego a gap year.

“No businesses are really open so I couldn’t even work in my gap year. The university said they would make most of their courses online with some opportunity for in-class labs,” he explained.

His plan is to live at home in Hinton and take his courses online, unless labs are in person.

“I’m impressed that they seem to be able to put everything online and serve all the students they have,” Litke added.

Online learning in high school has taught him how to manage classes and his schedule.

He added that in a classroom there’s a responsibility to the teacher and other students, but learning at home requires students to be accountable to do the work and meet deadlines.

“There may be bits of information I didn’t pick up here and there but based on the habits I’ve been able to cultivate I should be still able to maintain that,” he said.

Melissa Padfield, vice-provost and university registrar at U of A said the university will support impacted applicants in recognition of school closures and cancelled exams by accepting the grades and existing interim documents that were presented at initial admission, if final and official documents are unavailable.

“Each fall, we welcome our new students and provide them with the academic guidance and support services that they need for a successful transition to university life, and this year will be no different,” said Andre Costopoulos, vice-provost and Dean of Students at U of A.

Costopoulos added they would offer online orientation programs as well as remote access to academic help and wellness services to help students settle into the new experience. 

A greater emphasis will be placed on regular tutoring efforts faculties offer to new students who are looking to refresh and strengthen the knowledge and skills they would have picked up in high school, he added.

“We’re ready to help our new students safely navigate their changing learning environments,” Costopoulos said.