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Cheers to the Class of 2020!

Montreal - Monday, August 24, 2020

By Kristin McNeill, Randy Pinsky and Wendy Singer

The COVID-19 pandemic robbed the Class of 2020 of the traditional walk across the stage to the cheers of family and friends, and the opportunity to celebrate as a class one last time. But their teachers and staff were not about to let this milestone pass unmarked.

The Inspirations team checked in with some of our special schools to find out how they celebrated their Class of 2020. As you'll see, staff went all out, organizing creative and touching graduation events and activities that met physical distancing requirements. Students completed their year feeling celebrated and staff had a gratifying send off for their students.

Special needs schools did open briefly in June, and we take the opportunity here to report on the experience. We extend a big thank you to all who shared their stories with us.

Congratulations to the Class of 2020 for all that you have accomplished. Have a great summer, and best of luck as you begin the next chapter of your lives!

Mackay Centre and Philip E. Layton Schools celebrate grads on campus, online and at home

Graduates walk to their graduation ceremony at the Mackay Centre and Philip E. Layton campus in NDG.

In normal years, the Mackay Centre and Philip E. Layton (PEL) Schools (English Montreal School Board - EMSB) graduation ceremony is an elaborate and emotional event. While circumstances did not permit for a grandiose grad this year, it did not alter the strong sentiments that this major life event brings with it.

Class of 2020 grad Michael Andan at Mackay Centre and PEL Schools

Class of 2020 grad Michael Andan at Mackay Centre and PEL Schools

On the very hot day of June 19, 15 graduates and their parents attended a special ceremony set up on the lawn of the school, with ample space to accommodate social distancing and tents to protect from the sun and heat.

Thirteen Grade 6 Mackay Centre School students graduated this year. Many will be moving on to other high school programs, the Senior class at Mackay or one of their two satellite classes. “The teachers have taken a huge initiative to make graduation special for these kids,” said Mr. Gregory Watson, vice-principal of the Mackay Centre and PEL Schools. "It’s tough because our Grade 6 students don’t necessarily move on together as they come from so many different areas.”

The Mackay Centre School celebrated three graduates at the senior level. Two of these students - one from the Mackay Centre Senior Class, the other from Westmount High School’s Satellite Class had attended Mackay from pre-K to age 21. “These families have been involved with the Centre for 17 years. It’s a big deal,” said Mr. Watson.

One student graduated from the Royal Vale Satellite Class, which is specifically for deaf students. Her ceremony was virtual, with her class, teachers and both rehab and education staff, who have worked with her over the years, in attendance. Staff went all out, preparing a special slide show and speeches, and even shipped a graduation cap with tassel to the student's home.

The Mackay Centre and Philip E. Layton Schools graduation ceremony.

The Mackay Centre and Philip E. Layton Schools graduation ceremony.

Two graduates from Philip E. Layton School were treated to a drive-by ceremony at their home with their teachers the following week.

Saying goodbye was difficult, no matter which level the student graduated from. “While attending our school, the students and their families build strong relationships with other students, teachers, PABs (personal support workers) and the rehabilitation staff and therapists that have been working with them over the years,” said Mr. Watson. “This was the last time they’ll all be together, and they have been such a huge part of each other’s lives.”

Jonathan Bourassa wearing his graduation sweatshirt from Giant Steps School. (Photos, Karine Daniel)Jonathan Bourassa wearing his graduation sweatshirt from Giant Steps School. (Photos, Karine Daniel)

In culmination of the school year, more than 100 Giant Steppers got together over Zoom to celebrate the graduation of those transitioning to other school-type settings such as vocational training, adult education, and the Miriam Home day program. While Giant Steps will be hosting an in-person ceremony in the fall, graduates received personalized photo books assembled by their teachers as a keepsake of their special memories. Those who live in the country were also thrilled with visits by staff members to wrap up their Giant Steps experience.

Of particular poignancy was one graduate who had attended Giant Steps since he was 3 years old; “We were literally a part of his life,” noted Director General Thomas Henderson. Social stories were created to facilitate understanding the concept of moving on from Giant Steps.

In both the photo books and virtual celebration, teachers, staff and families heartfully shared stories about their experiences, demonstrating the bonds created, even at a distance. 


Louis Martin with his parents Antonia Maioni and Pierre Martin, watching a video with messages from staff and friends from Giant Steps.
Classroom staff are seen physically distancing in the background.

L.I.N.K.S. celebrated with in-person ceremony

Maria Caldarella, principal at L.I.N.K.S. in Ahuntsic (EMSB), was excited to share her school’s plans for its five graduating students. Along with their families, the students were invited to an outdoor ceremony on school grounds on June 19. Each family sat at its own table, with the proper distancing between others. Teachers gave testimonials about each graduate and presented them with their certificate in a gift portfolio with a scrapbook of photos. Because others in the school couldn’t be at the gathering, staff created a letter-writing project – a farewell letter to each from their friends at L.I.N.K.S.

The release of balloons into the sky presented a beautiful visual. “It was a special moment, feeling, an end,” said Ms. Caldarella.

A virtual prom party was held on the Microsoft Teams platform, but the in-person, live event is what everyone was really looking forward to. “It’s really to see everyone,” said Ms. Caldarella. “It’s really to have the feeling, ‘I did it.’”

REACH High School and Adam's PACE take graduation joy to the streets

This year, Adam’s PACE and REACH celebrated their graduations with a parade that garnered attention from beyond the walls of the schools. Adam’s PACE is an inclusive post-secondary program and an extension of Riverside School Board’s (RSB) alternative services, designed to meet the needs of students who are in their final years of schooling. Four students graduated this year. 


Student Thanasi and Marie Helen Goyetche, principal of REACH. (Photos, Kelly Waugh)

REACH, located in St. Lambert, offers an alternate educational program within the continuum of services offered by the RSB, offering occupational therapy, speech language and communication, and a CLSC nurse when necessary.
Under the leadership of principal Marie-Helen Goyetche, the administrations of REACH and Adam’s PACE came together to make some noise in the streets as they celebrated the graduation of four students from PACE and two from REACH. Staff paraded from house to house with cake and gifts, caps and gowns and of course, diplomas in hand. Students from PACE were also honoured with special awards.

Graduate Devon and his teacher Chrissy Bell

Graduate Devon and his teacher Chrissy Bell

Staff made big placards with photos of each graduate on them. Passersby, including police and truck drivers, raised the energy even higher by honking and cheering as they drove by.

It was special on many levels, as reported by Ms. Goyetche. “A lot of the staff hadn’t seen each other since March, so it was nice to be together.  Everyone pitched in and it really came together. We feel good knowing that we did something special for our grads. There were lots of tears from the parents. They got their much-needed closure.”

Summit School grads visited by party bus

Summit School usually celebrates three levels of graduates at the end of each school year (elementary, high school and the TECC program) with an elaborate ceremony and party at the Chateau Royal. They plan on holding an 'official' graduation ceremony when time allows, but in the meanwhile, the staff organized something extra special to provide their Class of 2020 with a little extra joy.

Over two days, the staff boarded two rented buses that were decorated with graduation signs and pumped out celebratory tunes, and visited each of the students' houses. Each student posed for professional photos donning their cap and gown. All graduates received flowers from Summit Flora and pastries from Summit's TECC Bistro. It was a celebration that grads and their families, and staff will cherish! "This was the next best thing that we could think of to celebrate our Class of 2020," said Herman Erdogmus, principal of Summit School.

In addition, graduates of the LaurenHill annex gathered on the decorated lawn of the school. Each family came at a different time to take photos in their cap and gown. They, too, received flowers and pastries.

Hats off to the grads at John Grant High School

John Grant High School in Côte Saint-Luc (EMSB) prepared a “Hats off to the grads” ceremony in mid-June for students, their families and friends. Principal Jennifer LeHuquet described the ways grads were honoured: Students received a celebration bag containing a graduation hoodie and other goodies, which was delivered to them in person ahead of the ceremony.

Ms. LeHuquet made an address, which students watched online. Grads also heard from student Hamzah Patel, who delivered a farewell speech, and different staff members “spoke on their behalf about their journey and their accomplishments,” she explained. “We looked to create a family feel and intimate affair.”

Also part of the ceremony was a special, live virtual performance by autism advocate Steven Atme and the traditional “throwing of the hats,” which was done streaming by Zoom in their individual homes.

“The graduation committee worked hard all year long to raise money towards their grad. They were fully on board with these plans but still want a homecoming when gatherings are allowed again so that they can walk across the stage and receive their official certificates,” she said.

Peter Hall honours 2020 grads and parents

On June 25, Peter Hall School organized a car parade to celebrate this year's graduating class. Parents drove their children past stations such as a candy bar and photo booth where they posed for pictures in their caps and gowns and receive personalized photo books.


Jeremy Daoust-Rojas and his family driving through at the Peter Hall graduation.

“The staff committees really pulled together to make this a special occasion for the graduates,” noted Valérie Arsenault, principal of Peter Hall School's Côte-Vertu Campus, making particular reference to Marie-Claude Forest, director of pedagogical services, as the event mastermind. “We really have a dream team.”

“At Peter Hall, a huge emphasis is on the students, but also on the staff and parents,” said Ms. Arsenault. Recognizing that this has been a very difficult time for caregivers, the staff created a video just for them. Heartfelt messages included encouraging ones such as “take things one day at a time;” “don't forget to give yourself a pat on the back;” “you’ve got this;” and most powerfully, “let it go- no one is perfect.”

How was the return to school?
Insights in preparing for the fall

The Mackay Centre and PEL Schools

The Mackay Centre and PEL Schools welcomed approximately 31 students back to class once the school reopened on June 1. According to Mr. Watson, the students and staff managed quite well. Staff were divided into classroom teams that mainly consisted of teachers, childcare workers and PABs, with nurses moving between classrooms. “Students and staff in each class were functioning as isolated teams to limit contact with others,” said Mr. Watson, adding that the Physical Education team staggered the timing of recess so each class could be outside one at a time. “It was a challenge, but for the most part the kids were really good.”

Due to the nature of the school and the needs of the students, physical distancing was not always possible. Staff members needed to be close to students, particularly those in wheelchairs. They wore personal protective equipment when working in close proximity with children, be it for toileting, feeding or other needs. Gowns and masks were changed between students, equipment was sanitized after each use and was not shared, short of balls that could be kicked around at recess.

“We see we can manage,” said Mr. Watson. “We marked all hallways to indicate two-metre separations and the Phys. Ed. teachers used cones and plastic circles to mark spaces outside when needed. Fortunately, our hallways were designed to be wide enough to accommodate two wheelchairs.”

Giant Steps School

While many parents opted to keep their children home when classes resumed in June, Giant Steps was happy to welcome those who decided to come back. “This was a good opportunity to develop protocols for how this could work when we return full-steam in the fall,” shared Mr. Henderson.

While successful, the reopening was not without challenges, particularly as many students require emotional and physical support. “But with some creativity, we were able to make it work,” commented Mr. Henderson. “And there have been some important silver linings in this experience. For instance, the occupational therapy team recognized the value of regular chats with the parents and will be maintaining that practice moving forward.”

Peter Hall School

“No one was sure how the return to school would go,” reflected Ms. Arsenault. “However it has gone really well. Everyone is benefitting from the opportunity to be one-on-one with the students, and numbers have actually increased.”

A great deal of preparation took place prior to the return, including the compilation of social stories to explain changes, and the hiring of a full-time social worker.

“It’s the unknown that causes anxiety,” said Ms. Arseneault. “But we are showing the parents and families we can manage this and that gives them confidence.”

We wish everyone a restful, healthy and fun summer.
Cheers to the Class of 2020!!