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Seniors, start your engines. Graduation by car is coming to Buffalo Niagara

Cardinal O'Hara High School Principal Mary Holzerland has been racking her brain trying to figure out how to have a graduation ceremony at a time when large groups of people cannot gather.

Any indoor venue is out of the question. How about the school's field? Too iffy and, depending on the weather, possibly too muddy. Parking lot? Maybe. So she started pacing out the spacing to see if it was feasible.

"The neighbors must have thought I was a crazy woman," she said. On top of that, the math didn't work.

Then a light bulb: a drive-in theater. She called Rick Cohen, owner of the Transit Drive-In in Lockport.

"I just wanted a place that would be safe," Holzerland said.

If all goes well and New York State gives permission for the drive-in to open, that's where the school's graduation will take place May 27. Many other schools and seniors are expected to follow suit.

"Right now, we’re crossing our fingers that everything works," she said.

In the age of the coronavirus, such previously simple questions like "Where will we hold graduation?" require such flights of wisdom.

St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute is not going to the drive-in, but it is considering a drive-thru commencement.

It's still in the preliminary stages, but the high school is planning to have members of the Class of 2020 and their parents drive slowly through the campus the afternoon of May 14, the original date of graduation, so faculty, staff and coaches can celebrate them.

At 7 p.m. that evening, the seniors and their families can watch a pre-recorded video with many of the same elements of a traditional graduation, including speeches by the valedictorian and salutatorian and virtual presentation of awards.

"This is not the way we anticipated celebrating their achievements on May 14, but we look forward to seeing our beloved seniors in person, celebrating with them, and recognizing their extraordinary mark on St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute," St. Joe's President Christopher Fulco said.

Fulco said he receives emails almost daily expressing disappointment, concern and sympathy for the seniors.

"Not only have they missed out on the last two months of their senior year, but they are also missing some of the traditional events that mark the end of a young man’s St. Joe’s experience, including the commencement ceremony perennially held at Kleinhans Music Hall in mid-May," he said in a statement.

May is usually prime movie time for the Transit Drive-in, which has not opened yet this year because Cohen has been concerned that trips to the rest room or snack bar would spread the coronavirus. But graduations? He thought that might work.

Transit Drive-in stays closed: 'No one is going to get sick because I kept the drive-in open'

So he has set up tentative graduation dates from the end of May to mid-July with area schools.

He has applied to Empire State Development, which is coordinating which businesses are essential, nonessential and allowed to operate. Cohen said he also wants to open his five screens for summer movies.

The snack bar will be closed, and he will show only one feature film to cut down on visits to the restrooms, which staff will be monitoring and cleaning. Tickets will be bought online and can be scanned through a car window, he said.

"There's no reason why we couldn’t be open, provided we are taking every measure that we can to minimize the risk," Cohen said.

He envisions seniors staying in their cars with their families while a prerecorded video produced by the schools is shown on the screen. After the video, each school can choose its own movie for students to enjoy for the remainder of the evening.

"I just want to make sure the kids have a graduation where they can be together and then take with them," Cohen said.

Both schools are distributing caps and gowns to the students, but other traditions, such as a solemn procession down the aisle to the stage can't be done. And there won't be the congratulatory handshake as the principal or superintendent hands students their diplomas.

"It's not ideal, it’s not perfect but at least it lets these kids have some closure," Holzerland said.

She acknowledged things might not go as planned.

"Whatever it is, we’ll work it out,"  she said.

Seniors fear missing out on 'the best memories from high school'

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