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3 steps to planning a virtual graduation ceremony

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By Jay Cooper
Apr 14, 2021 1:00:00 PM

Uncertainty still looms over many school districts about how to honor the 2021 graduating class whose symbolic prize of a commencement ceremony has been checked by pandemic social distancing restrictions. School administrators are looking at options ranging far and wide, but the reality of the situation is that unless state governments relax distancing rules soon, the best solution is a virtual graduation ceremony.

This article outlines how and why these 3 steps to a virtual graduation ceremony could be music to your ears. Cue Pomp and Circumstance.

Virtual graduation: a real, certain solution for uncertain times

Across the nation, school districts are being forced to do multiple- scenario planning for everything from budgets, school year calendars, remote learning, website design, and more. Toss in a graduation ceremony that has to occur on the front end of all that. Whew!

Some administrators are tentatively planning to push back ceremonies to July or August, kicking around football stadiums as potential sites for full-scale ceremonies. Mall parking lots and drive-in movie lots are in play as well. But the math of social distancing logistics doesn’t add up to even delayed events being a good solution.

Logistically, even at two tickets per student, most football stadiums cannot accommodate the limited number of guests. Then there’s the matter of staging and procession for your students – and entrance and egress for your guests and staff. Oh, and masks. Everyone will have a mask?

Social distancing requirements preclude realistic execution of these options. Bottom line is any plan to congregate is a shot in the dark due to current health risks.

Even without the threat of rain – boy, what we’d give for those days, huh? – so many variables and obstacles and the multiple scenarios are proving difficult for administrators, students and families to do any firm, sensible planning.

3 easy steps to a virtual graduation ceremony

I don’t know about you, but this prevailing uneasiness and worry create a sense of uncertainty. A cloud of non-closure hovers over your students, parents, teachers, and other staff.

A virtual graduation ceremony is certain; utilizes the technology in hand; can be ultimately more efficient, progressive/hip, and, not incidentally, solves the ticket allocation limit so many schools are forced to place on an in-person event.


Virtual student profiles on your school website are much more engaging than an alphabetical listing in a hard-copy program. Easy for your students to share on social media too!

1. Communicate your virtual graduation ceremony

The first step in your 2020 graduation ceremony planning is to inform your students, parents, staff and the rest of your school community. Don’t forget about the media: since it’s a virtual graduation ceremony (VGC), news of your plans should get some media attention.

Create a Virtual Graduation Ceremony Center page 

This is graduation headquarters for your school. It’s a dedicated page on your website that contains all the key information and links your school community needs to access. Your VGC should be comprised of:

  • A brief welcome message from the high school principal or superintendent explaining the ceremony. (Better yet, a video message can capture the spirit of the event.) 
  • Links to VGC plans and instructions your students, parents or staff need to participate ‘virtually’
  • The date and time of the live ceremony (see below)
  • Links to virtual profiles of each graduate, in alphabetical groupings so viewers can easily locate their favorite grads
  • A dedicated Instagram/Twitter hashtag (e.g., #yourschool2020grads)
  • Email to all students, staff, parents with a brief cover message and link to VGC page.
  • Social media promotion – share link to VGC across all social media school channels.
  • Link VGC page to district and high school homepages and your Update Center page.



Include all your important graduation info on your Virtual Graduation Ceremony Center page.

2. Assemble a virtual program 

No graduation ceremony would be complete without a program, but rather than the traditional hard-copy version, your 2020 program should be posted online, linked to your VGC page. A virtual graduation program is far superior to any printed ones, for it includes images and additional info about the grad.

  • Using Google Slides, create a grad template, a single slide that shows the grad’s name, photo, a comment from the grad and his or her plans
  • Using Google Forms, send out a 2-question form to all grads, asking for 50 words or less and future plans. Also, request graduation photos or use those supplied for the senior yearbook. 
  • Assemble the student slides in alphabetical order, parcel them into alphabetical segments: (A-C, D-F, etc.) and post via links in ‘See Grads Here’ section on VGC.

3. Produce the ceremony itself

Just like a traditional graduation ceremony, your 2020 virtual version needs to be produced. You still need the presentations, commencement speech, and of course, the students, but rather than a venue, staging, chairs and good weather, this year’s is all hosted and conducted on your website.

Video stream your graduation ceremony 

  • After mapping out who you feel is essential to speak at your commencement (superintendent, principal, valedictorian, salutatorian, and special honorees, et al) determine if you want to use Facebook Live or Youtube Live to stream your live event. See these quick tips on using Facebook Live or read this article on How to Go Live with Youtube.
  • Line up your camera/production crew. You might have existing relationships with local public access TV organizations, so explore those or in-house staff- or student-run media production sources.

video button video still

Live stream your principal's address, then post an archive version of it on your Virtual Graduation Center page.


With or without students

  • There are really two options for the ‘procession’ itself, one still saddles your ceremony planners with the same social distancing challenges described above. The other is a virtual solution.
    • With students – adequately spaced throughout the school or venue, processing to a stage, where a (masked and gloved) administrator hands out diplomas to masked students. Or...
    • Without students – Following the live addresses of selected personnel, the principal or superintendent closes the video portion by directing viewers to the virtual graduation program (see above).
  • Archived for later viewing – A major benefit of streaming is that you can automatically create an archive video of the presentation portion of your ceremony and place a link to it on your VGC page. Be certain to include transcription to meet school website ADA accessibility requirements.

A virtual procession

Instagram extension slide show – In addition to posting your 2020 grad profiles on your VGC (see above), there’s a cool app/extension available from Elfsite that enables your students to post to a dedicated virtual graduation Instagram feed using the #yourschool2020grads hashtag you create. It’s simple to implement and inexpensive.

NOTE: You should have a designated school staff monitor this and all school social media feeds to prevent any negative posts to this feed.

CEREMONY TIP: Have members of your school band record Pomp and Circumstance and post the song to your Virtual Graduation Center page.

Start planning your virtual graduation center now.

In these times when everything from when and where you can eat, shop, and return to work and school is up in the air, making firm decisions about gathering hundreds and – in some cases, thousands – of people together for commencement are problematic at best, litigious at worst.

Sure it’s a major shift in big, important tradition, but a virtual graduation ceremony with the elements outlined above is your quickest, easiest, most cost-effective way to handle the uncertainty that surrounds the 2020 high school graduation scene. 

So, what are your graduation plans?


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About the author

Marketing manager and content strategist for SchoolStatus, Jay’s a former school public relations specialist who has helped school districts, universities, and businesses generate support and optimize relationships. Reach him at jay.cooper@schoolstatus.com.