ITHACA, N.Y. — Graduation looks a little different this year for Ithaca High School seniors. Usually taking place at the Athletics and Events Center at Ithaca College, whose campus has been closed since mid-March, graduates instead donned their red caps and gowns to walk across the lakeside stage at Stewart Park.

During the first week of June, IHS seniors participated in filming for their virtual graduation ceremony, which will be livestreamed on June 25. PhotoSynthesis Productions, a local production company, worked with the Ithaca City School District to film the stage walk and create the video, which will also include messages from alumni, members of the Ithaca community, and school officials, and photos and memories from the seniors’ time at IHS.

“It doesn’t feel like a ceremony anymore,” Karl Mellander, director of student activities at IHS, said. “It feels completely different. We owned that from the beginning. We have speakers, but it’s not your commencement speaker, your keynote speaker, coming to the podium. It’s a collection of shorter segments from some really prominent people that a lot of them are going to recognize right away.”

Mellander has been planning the virtual ceremony since early March, when there was initial speculation that the schools were going to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As things started opening up more and the school received more directives on what they could and couldn’t do, the ceremony was able to transform from one graduate walking across the stage in the IHS auditorium to having one family at a time watching the graduate walk across the stage at the park. IHS principal Jason Trumble was also able to greet graduates as they walked across the stage, bringing some sense of normalcy to the ceremony. Filming took place in five-minute increments for each graduate over the course of five days.

“I was incredibly appreciative of staff members at IHS and the district who were flexible and kept me sane through this process,” Mellander said. “There were a lot of people who helped out in an incredible number of ways. There was a lot of behind the scenes stuff that students and families have no idea about, and I’m thankful to have those people on my team.”

The virtual ceremony will show approximately 325 students, including IHS seniors and Turning Point and TST BOCES graduates. Mellander said about 90% of the graduating class participated in the stage walk. 

“The stage walk is going to be the big event for people, no question, just if it’s a few seconds per graduate, but it’s more personal than they would have gotten,” Mellander said.

Deborah Hoard, president of PhotoSynthesis Productions, said that she had never worked on something like a virtual graduation before, but working with IHS made the daunting task manageable.

“It was sort of a whole new world, but they had really carefully planned out the ceremony itself and we were just documenting it for them,” she said.

She said that usually, to make a piece that is about an hour-long, they would have months or even years to edit it and put it together. This time, her team had about two weeks.

“It’s nice to help this be a fun thing instead of a bummer for the students,” Hoard said.

Logistically, planning the virtual ceremony was a challenge. The school had to work with the Tompkins County Health Department and Stewart Park to ensure they were following health and safety regulations.

“It was a long and very difficult process, not just because of the newness of it, but because we had these safety guidelines changing all the time, so we had to keep changing things as we moved ahead,” Mellander said. “It was difficult just in terms of moving parts and a lot of people. It was a lot of time, basically five full days of non-stop videoing.”

In classic Ithaca fashion, the weather also posed a challenge. Mellander said that the wind blew away the decorations on the first day, and he did not want decorations up on one day and not the other, so they decided to not use them. Hoard said the crew had to call filming early one day due to the rain, but were able to catch up with the rest of the graduates over the following days.

“Except for the thunder and lightning, it was a perfect location,” she said. “But it’s Ithaca, so we’re used to that.”

Hoard said the post-production end posed some challenges as well. Being that her team is working from home and the media files are so large, they found themselves sanitizing hard drives and driving them across town to complete the edit.

“It’s strange that when the pandemic hit, everyone was worried, as a filmmaker, what are we going to do, but it turns out a lot of people need video at this time,” she said. “But everything is harder to do, and it’s harder to do safe videography.”

Mellander said that the parents of seniors have expressed gratitude for the stage walk and the virtual ceremony, and that he is excited for graduates to see the finished product.

“It is much harder to gauge from the students as far as their reaction to it,” he said. “It’s so different, they had no idea what to expect when they came to the stage. Their faces, you’ll see, are almost a little overwhelmed, but they’re happy to have this moment. They understand where we are in the world and how Ithaca is and they were appreciative of that, despite the pandemic.”

The virtual graduation ceremony will be livestreamed at https://www.ithacacityschools.org/highschool on June 25 at 7 p.m.

“We were going for a combination of serious, funny and sentimental, and I think they’ll get that from the video,” Mellander said.

Madison Fernandez

Madison Fernandez is a contributing reporter at the Ithaca Voice. You can reach her by email at mfernandez@ithacavoice.com.