Traditional public school commencement ceremonies canceled this year

  • Christina Kishimoto

  • Kealakehe High School graduates celebrate during the school’s 2019 commencement ceremony. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Graduates sing the alma mater at Kealakehe High School’s 2019 commencement ceremony Commencement Ceremony. (Photos by Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Konawaena High School graduates celebrate at the 2019 commencement ceremony at Julian Yates Field.

“Alternative celebrations” will be held in place of traditional commencement ceremonies at public and public charter schools amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, education officials announced Wednesday.

“This was an emotional decision because we understand the importance this milestone for our seniors,” Department of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said in a video message released Wednesday morning.

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The department said the decision to replace commencement ceremonies with “alternative celebrations” came “after much consideration and discussion.” It reflects concerns over safety and social distancing.

Schools will instead honor their seniors through different models of celebrations, which will be announced next week, the department said. There are strict safety parameters the schools will need to work within, however, the DOE has empowered them to design a celebration that can best reflect the traditions of the school’s community.

“In Hawaii, these celebrations are uniquely special with a long-standing tradition of families coming together to celebrate, giving towering amounts of lei, and enjoying each other’s company — something we are all missing during this time,” said Kishimoto. “The Department has faced tough decisions throughout this unprecedented situation, especially around commencement ceremonies. We’ve looked for innovative solutions to support and celebrate our seniors who deserve this recognition.”

There are currently 11,183 seniors attending public schools across the state, with approximately 90% eligible to graduate on time based on third-quarter grades, which are still being processed, according to the DOE. Hawaii’s public schools remain closed through at least April 30.

James Young, student activities coordinator for Kealakehe High School, said the West Hawaii school will have a better idea of what celebrations will be held in May after a meeting with stakeholders today.

“Student government is included in this meeting,” he said. “This includes cap and gowns. Some parents have already asked if they can still pickup their regalia even if there isn’t a ceremony. So. Obviously lots to talk about. But I want to get everyone’s input before we put something formal out there.”

The news of cancellation of traditional commencement ceremonies impacted seniors at Konawaena High School differently.

“I agree with the fact that doing this will keep people safe and it is realistically the right thing to do,” said Nicole Demers. “On the other hand, it is also important to think about all the hard work the seniors have had to go through. We have spent four years waiting for the day we get to walk the line.. and hearing that it was canceled like that is heartbreaking.”

She hopes there is a way to recognize the achievements of the Class of 2020 — at some point.

”It’s not necessarily the fact that we ‘don’t get to graduate’ but we don’t get to say our proper goodbyes to the people who have helped us through this rough journey,” she said.

Graciel Andres said some people don’t understand “how sad the situation is” for the Class of 2020.

“Personally, I wanted to take hard classes and get called on the stage for having some kind of special award or something to make my parents proud. Now, that it might not happen, I don’t know what to say,” Andres said. “Some people compare it to the teenagers in 1900s that didn’t finish school because they were told to go to war. But that’s like so much different. That was back then.”

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Megan Baguso understands the need to cancel traditional graduation commencement ceremonies and use the time to take care of what really matters.

“I think at this point everyone expected there would be no graduation,” she said, noting the department’s recent announcement that school’s would not reopen until no new COVID-19 cases present for four weeks. “However, I do feel for all the seniors but we all just have to look at the brighter side that they made this decision to keep everyone safe. We’d be risking the lives of people we care about and are closer to. Although it’s still a whole month and a half away, we don’t know how many more cases will be discovered.”