Jessica Feldman didn’t know what to expect as her parents led her outside their Conshohocken home.
What awaited her was a pleasant surprise: More than 20 family members and friends drove around the cul-de-sac waving signs and balloons from their cars.
Graduating students across Philadelphia have had formal commencement ceremonies either canceled or pushed back due to the pandemic. So some families, like Feldman’s, have gotten creative to commemorate the occasion.
“It was awesome,” said Feldman, who graduated from West Chester University. “It was kind of sad, obviously, because I was supposed to be graduating that day, but to be able to see everyone come by anyway and celebrate with me at a safe distance was really nice.”
Feldman said most graduates she knows have opted for virtual celebrations. But a few families, including that of Miryam Surden of Ardmore, found a way to celebrate in person.
Surden graduated on May 7 from Temple University with a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy. To celebrate, her mother planned a little surprise.
Surden walked out the door to find a small social distanced get-together with her immediate family and next-door neighbors. The pièce de résistance was a pizza with Surden’s name and school logo written out in cheese.
“It’s nice to be able to spend time with our neighbors and get everyone out of the house and actually see other faces that weren’t just my immediate family,” Surden said. “It was nice and intimate, and it was a good way to just celebrate with people that we know.”
Surden hung a sign on her music stand and placed it in front of her house, leading passing cars to honk in celebration. And family members who weren’t present called to congratulate her.
While many schools opted to go virtual or postpone graduations to the fall, Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy is proceeding while implementing social distancing. Barrack normally hosts a commencement ceremony at a local synagogue.
Director of College Counseling Rebecca Trajtenberg, who is the senior class adviser, said that because Barrack’s graduating class is only about 60 students, the school plans to do its ceremony in person with social distancing measures implemented.
“No one’s ever experienced this, and they, as high school students, have lost every experience that they’ve seen as a rite of passage,” Trajtenberg said. “They’ve lost it all. So our administration has made that our top priority when it comes to our seniors starting new traditions.”
In June, the school plans to host a “drive-in movie” style of graduation. The ceremony will be livestreamed on a large screen in front of families in their cars. The students, wearing caps and gowns, will be presented their diploma in the car by their family. Barrack also plans to order a 12-inch-by-18-inch cutout sign of each senior’s face for them to stick out of their vehicle.
“The biggest thing for us is keeping our traditions alive,” Trajtenberg said. “That’s the most important piece that we’re trying to value right now, and figure out how to do that in this time period.”
Several schools, like West Chester and Temple, have hosted a combination of virtual commencements along with planning to reschedule graduations for the fall. Feldman would like to attend, but the early grades preparation and special education dual major might be preoccupied as she begins searching for teaching positions.
“I understood why they had to do it,” Feldman said. “It’s a little disappointing going through all that hard work for four years and not being able to walk across the stage with all my friends from my major.”
Surden also would like to attend her school’s in-person graduation, but might be unable to due to applying to occupational therapy school to start her master’s degree.
“I’d be a little bit more upset if it wasn’t happening at all,” Surden said. “I feel better that they’re making an effort to postpone it because they know how important that is.”