The TDSB wouldn’t approve a graduation parade for this Thorncliffe-Flemingdon Park school. Teachers went ahead anyway

By Gilbert Ngabo Toronto Star Staff Reporter

Mohamed Dasu is angry at the coronavirus — for killing thousands of people across the world and bringing so much in life to a standstill. And especially for ruining a dream he’s had since Grade 9: the high school graduation ceremony.

“It hurts to not have your family and friends watch you at graduation and go to the prom parties,” said Dasu, a Grade 12 student who’s finishing up at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute and heading to the University of Toronto next year.

“I guess it’s a life lesson for us to build character, because life is going to throw things at us that we’re going to have to somehow work with and find solutions around.”

He and other students in the final year at the school are thankful to a group of teachers who found a way to celebrate their achievement despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dozens of teachers held a parade Tuesday afternoon through the neighbourhoods of Flemingdon Park and Thorncliffe Park where the majority of the Grade 12 students at Marc Garneau C.I. live. The parade was the teachers’ way of showing love to these students and giving them the send off they deserve in a time of lockdown and physical distancing due to the coronavirus.

Many schools in Toronto have been planting congratulatory signs in the front lawns of houses where graduating students live. Across the country, some schools have found innovative ways to hold mini-ceremonies in front yards and give speeches and hand over diplomas to the grads, while respecting physical distancing measures. That’s all well and good, said Karen Herder, one of the parade organizers at Marc Garneau, but her school couldn’t do the same thing because many of their students live in highrise apartments and don’t have private lawns.

The organizers learned last week that TDSB was opposed to the plan, and that the parade was “not a board sanctioned activity.”

The school principal was informed by a TDSB lawyer that there were liability issues in case of an accident. The group originally had arranged for a police escort, but later was told that wouldn’t be possible as it wasn’t a board sanctioned event. The teachers were willing to sign a waiver that wouldn’t hold TDSB liable for any accident, Herder said, but they didn’t hear back on that.TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird told the Star the board has not officially sanctioned any parades for graduates at any of their schools, and Marc Garneau wasn’t “being singled out at all.”

“We want to be very cautious with that, and health and safety comes first,” he said, insisting the board can’t be seen as allowing a large group of people to get together and perform a parade in time of COVID-19.

In a written statement, Bird added such activities can go ahead as long as they’re organized by the school’s community and not the school itself. TDSB has cancelled all graduation ceremonies until the fall and left it up to individual schools to find creative ways to celebrate that are still safe for everyone involved.

With highrise buildings, no front lawns and few options but a parade, the board’s stance just didn’t seem fair, Herder said.

“It feels even more unjust that there are schools in affluent neighbourhoods where the teachers can go around to their homes and grads can stand out on their porch and get celebrated. We’re just trying to do the same and we get told no,” she said.

So, the organizers plowed ahead, mobilizing dozens of cars on Tuesday decorated with balloons and posters to parade through students’ neighbourhoods. They were greeted with grads and families cheering from balconies and windows.For Dasu, the parade is more than just a good gesture of support to the graduating students. It adds a sense of “finality” to an academic year that has been full of challenges.

“I think the teachers had an amazing intent,” he said, adding it will be historically remembered as the year when graduating students had a parade. “It came from a concern that students are feeling isolated. It’s a beautiful thing and it really touched me.”

Herder, who has been teaching in the co-op department at Marc Garneau since 2007, said it’s been an especially challenging time for students in the area, who already deal with long-standing issues like community violence and Islamophobia.

Taking time to paint cars with colourful and positive signs, and making dozens of stops in one afternoon to celebrate those graduating from the school is just one way to try and lift people’s spirit during a very difficult time, she said.

“I have students that have not left their buildings since the start of the pandemic. Their mental health right now is at an all-time low,” she said.

“We just want to support our grads and let them know we’re there for them. We have a lot of amazing teachers who are so supportive, and it’s been a really hard time.”