A year after the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to traditional commencement ceremonies, some East Hawaii high schools will return to in-person graduations, while others will celebrate seniors in other ways.
Although specifics are still being determined, Waiakea High School Principal Kelcy Koga said the school will host an in-person graduation May 22 at its stadium.
It will be comprised of two back-to-back ceremonies, with the senior class divided alphabetically. Each student will be allowed to bring two guests and graduates will be spaced out on the field.
“The senior class had advocated for in-person graduation because they never came together as a senior class this school year,” Koga said.
Although the vast majority of students had wanted the entire class together, there aren’t any facilities that could accommodate a group that size and allow for distancing, he said.
“Even the tennis stadium is not large enough to space the entire 300-plus students 6 feet apart along with all of the guests.”
Administrators and advisers, Koga said, “tried to meet them half way.”
“We did also consider a drive-through like we did last year,” he said. “I think because of the vaccines and because of the (COVID case) numbers going down, we’re able to have something a little more personal, and the senior class and the graduation committee, along with the advisers, they were OK with having two ceremonies back-to-back. I think we all agree that was as close as we could get to a normal ceremony (like one) we would have pre-COVID.”
In addition to commencement — which also will be livestreamed or televised — Koga said the entire month of May will be dedicated to the school’s seniors, with a number of activities planned for the graduates.
A drive-through “senior send-off” will be held May 21, the day before graduation, during which Koga said students will be able to drive-through and say goodbye to their teachers.
Keaau High School also will host an in-person graduation at 4 p.m. May 21.
Principal Dean Cevallos said families are asked to arrive by 2 p.m.
“Who would have ever thought you’d have to do a drive-through graduation, but I think the committee that put it together planned it so well that it turned out very, very cool,” he said of last year’s drive-through commencement. “I think everybody enjoyed it.”
But students this year said they wanted a traditional graduation.
“And for us to be able to say that we can give that to them and they want that is awesome,” Cevallos said, adding that he hopes fulfilling this request will give back a little of what students have lost this year.
Keaau High opened to in-person instruction, on an A/B schedule, in January.
Students are “bummed” about missing out on other senior rites, like prom, but have adapted as best as possible to the situation, Cevallos said.
“But when we were able to come back, I think they were very happy to at least come back and have some sort of a school life on the campus, and then have something like a graduation that we could plan,” he continued. “… I don’t want to have anything happen that ruins our graduation. I think that’s so vitally important for this group is to at least have them have their caps and gowns, them be in a ceremony and to just receive their diplomas this year since everything else was pretty much (canceled).”
Other high schools, however, will forego in-person commencement exercises.
Hilo High School will offer a virtual and drive-through graduation for students on Friday, May 21.
Principal Jasmine Urasaki said recently that the commencement will be “very similar to last year, but (will have) a little bit more for the kids because they can get out of the car and cross the stage.”
According to Urasaki, seniors were polled about commencement options and the results were evenly split between students who wanted an in-person ceremony and those who wanted a drive-through program.
A deciding factor, she said, was that students could only bring two guests if graduation was held in-person.
Urasaki said, too, that a number of families had indicated that their child would not participate if the graduation was in-person.
“We felt more students would be able to participate if it was that drive-through style.”
There has been more time to prepare for ceremonies this year.
“I feel a little bit more comfortable,” Urasaki said of this year’s graduation ceremony. “We have a bit more time. Last year (we were) going day by day … At least we have a little bit more experience because we did it last year. Then we can hopefully meet our deadlines with more ease.”
Honokaa High and Intermediate School also will host a virtual graduation at 7 p.m. Friday, May 21, on Facebook Live, followed by a drive-through diploma pickup at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 22.
“We just want to make sure everyone is safe and … able to have more family members in attendance with their students,” Principal Rachelle Matsumura said.
In-person graduations would have limited each student to two guests, she said. Additionally, Matsumura said the school doesn’t have a large enough outdoor area to hold the whole class.
“Last year was very new, we were learning on the fly,” she said. “This year, we’re enhancing what we’re doing.
Honokaa High also will host a senior day for seniors only on May 19 on the school field.
The event will be socially distanced and require masks, and there will be pictures, cap decorating, speeches and other activities.
Elsewhere in East Hawaii, Pahoa High and Intermediate School will host a drive-through ceremony on May 23, while Ka‘u High and Pahala Elementary will have a limited in-person ceremony on May 21, according to a state Department of Education spokeswoman Nanea Kalani.
Ka‘u High students will be seated on the field in accordance with federal health guidelines while parents and guardians, limited to two household guests per graduate, will be seated around the field in bleachers and around the fence line, also in accordance with health guidelines, she said.