Districts get creative in celebrating the class of 2020
Since the graduating class of 2020 began its time in high school, California has been plagued by wildfires and the smoke and power shut-offs that came along with those natural disasters. Some students have lost their homes or dealt with other losses as a result, and nearly all have at one point had to adapt to school closures caused by dangerous conditions. This March, after State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond’s announcement that schools in California would likely remain closed for the remainder of the school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, district leaders began working to ensure the graduating class of 2020 is still able to participate in some form of the rites of passage these students have earned.

Within a couple weeks of Thurmond’s announcement, district leaders in places such as Santa Rosa City Schools, Gilroy Unified School District and Conejo Valley USD began crowdsourcing ideas on how their communities could celebrate their high school seniors while following social-distancing measures that bar the congregation of large groups.

In some areas, principals drove around to graduates’ homes honking their car horns and putting congratulatory signs in students’ yards. Patterson Joint USD announced that large senior portraits would be posted 6 feet apart — the recommended distance public health officials advise people should keep from one another — around the perimeter of its high schools beginning May 5 as part of its plan to celebrate the class of 2020.

By mid-May, districts began announcing that in-person graduation ceremonies were in the early planning stages and would look different and take place later than they had traditionally. Fresno USD high school seniors were told they would get a chance to “graduate twice,” once virtually and a second time in-person, COVID-19 permitting. “We are pleased to offer our graduating seniors a special celebration that does not take the place of a physical graduation but still celebrates this milestone in their lives and gives families a chance to enjoy this special season,” Fresno Superintendent Bob Nelson said in a statement.

A traditional ceremony would eventually be held when social-distancing restrictions were relaxed, Nelson said, but in the meantime, “virtual senior celebrations” would be held from May 21 through June 3. “Each celebration will recognize all seniors and include student and staff videos; messages from the board of education, superintendent and principal; certification of graduates; and the turning of the tassel,” he said.

In San Diego USD, student leaders presented ideas on how to safely celebrate their milestones at the May 12 board meeting. Ideally, they said, students would have in-person graduations in late July or early August with those especially vulnerable to the novel coronavirus urged to stay home. The next-best option would be to hold an in-person ceremony with graduating classes broken up into smaller groups to ensure social distancing.

Many districts appear to be headed toward holding smaller in-person graduation ceremonies with limited numbers of guests at each function.

Clovis USD said its celebrations were being planned for individual students and their families in May and June, but that traditional services were planned for July 27 and 28, so long as mass gatherings are allowed by the state at that time. Meanwhile, Placer Union High School District announced it will hold in-person graduation ceremonies for its seven high schools and their seniors in July, permitting no more than 50 graduates present at one time to allow for social distancing.

San Mateo County Superintendent of Schools Nancy Magee announced an order from San Mateo County Health Officer Scott Morrow permitted high schools to hold certain “highly regulated” gatherings of vehicles, allowing schools to host modified graduation ceremonies. Magee told ABC7 News that graduation ceremonies would be “one of those events that kids won’t easily forget.”

The order limits the number of vehicles to 200, with occupants in each vehicle required to be members of the same household. Those inside are not allowed to leave the vehicle at the gathering “except to use a restroom or collect an item such as a diploma,” according to the order, and if the windows are open, people are required to wear face coverings.

Despite the strict requirements of the order, county education officials expressed excitement in being able to offer the class of 2020 some kind of in-person graduation celebration in light of the pandemic.

“One of the biggest lessons we ever have is what life hands us every day,” Magee said. “So, if we can take these challenges, and find solutions and ways to move forward together, that’s really what we’re all about.”