West Hawaii schools prep for graduation

  • Graduates enter Waverider Stadium for Kealakehe High School’s Class of 2019 Commencement Ceremony. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file photo)

  • A Kealakehe High School graduate is cheered on by staff during the Class of 2020 drive-through commencement ceremony. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file photo)

  • A Kealakehe High School graduate gets his photo taken with principal Glenn Gray during the 2020 drive-through commencement ceremony. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file photo)

Hundreds of public high, charter and private school students are gearing up for Class of 2021 commencement ceremonies, a year after the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to traditional in-person graduations.

Alternative ceremony formats will continue for a second year with a limit on the number of guests to comply with COVID-19 health and safety guidelines. West Hawaii graduations begin May 21 with West Hawaii Explorations Academy and wrap-up May 28 at the largest school on the Big Island: Kealakehe High School.


“We are so proud of our Class of 2021 graduates for their scholarship, student leadership and resilience during this very difficult COVID-19 period,” Superintendent Dr. Christina Kishimoto said in a prepared statement Monday. “Our high schools across the islands have been working with graduates, parents and families to plan the best possible celebrations while adhering to social distancing requirements and other health and safety guidelines. We thank our school communities and partners who have been working to make these events truly special.”

What will likely be the largest event held on the Big Island since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 will close out the high school graduation season on May 28 when Kealakehe High School graduates hundreds of seniors in an in-person commencement ceremony in Kailua-Kona.

“This is going to be the largest gathering on our island in a year and a half. We have about 300 graduates plus their two guests — we’re talking 900 people,” said James Young, student activities coordinator.

The decision to hold an in-person commencement was made after talking with staff and students.

“We thought it would be better than a drive-up, and while the drive-up was nice last year, we wanted to give them that real experience of an actual graduation,” said Young.

During the May 28 commencement ceremony, which gets underway at 10 a.m., each graduate will be socially distanced in the concrete bleachers at Waverider Stadium while their two ticketed guests will be seated in socially distanced “pods” on the field.

The students won’t get to sing their class song due to the pandemic, but they will take part in the tradition of turning their tassels together.

Young said there will be no exceptions made for additional guests without tickets, and that includes children and even an infant who would sit on a parent’s lap. Lei ceremonies are also prohibited with Young asking family and friends also to not congregate along Ane Keohokalole Highway.

“Anyone that comes in needs a ticket,” he said. “Even people who are working that day, like (school) staff, they are going to have to watch it on the live stream. We’re going to have limited amount of staff in the ceremony as well.”

The live stream will be available for all to watch on the school’s YouTube page KealakeheHighSchool808.

“I think it’s the best we can do right now and I’m comfortable with it and I think our plan’s going to work but we just really need to get the word out that we just don’t want a bunch of people gathered here, or even on Ane K. Highway like they did last year. We really want to limit those social gatherings,” said Young. “We’re making good progress we don’t want a super-spreader event.”

Ahead of Kealakehe High School’s graduation, a host of commencement ceremonies are planned for Friday, May 21, and Saturday, May 22.

West Hawaii Explorations Academy will split its 2021 commencement ceremony into two in-person sessions, the first at 9 a.m. and the second at 11 a.m. on May 21 The public charter school, which typically graduates about 20 students each year, opted to hold two ceremonies to comply with COVID-19 guidelines.

At noon, nine seniors at Hawaiian language immersion Ke Kula ‘O ‘Ehunuikaimalino will turn their tassels during an in-person ceremony with limited guests at Konawaena High School’s baseball field. A virtual ceremony is also planned.

Next, Parker School, a private school in Waimea, will hold its commencement ceremony outdoors at 1 p.m. with a limit of two guests per graduate. The event will also be live streamed.

Hawaii Preparatory Academy, a second private school in Waimea, will hold its 70th annual commencement exercise at 2 p.m. at its campus. The in-person graduation event is closed to the public.

“Our goal is to offer a safe in-person graduation with limited guests present. As a result, we are shifting our Commencement to an outdoor space on campus and will allow each senior to have two guests attend the ceremony, per recent guidelines provided by the Hawaii Department of Education,” the school said in an April update. “While these guidelines are meant for public schools, they also provide HPA with best practices to consider.”

Ka’u High and Pahala Elementary School is holding an invitation-only graduation ceremony for its 48 seniors at the campus in Pahala. A live stream of the event is also planned.

On May 22, Konawaena High School will graduate 180 seniors starting at 8:30 a.m. at Julian Yates Field on the South Kona school’s campus. The commencement ceremony is in-person, with a limitation on the number of guests per student and vehicles.

At 10 a.m., Honokaa High and Intermediate School will hold its own commencement activities for 130 graduating senior with a drive-through diploma pick up and virtual ceremony. The in-person event follows a virtual graduation at 7 p.m. May 21 on Facebook Live.

“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.

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.

Later in the afternoon, the North Kohala community will celebrate 55 seniors graduating from Kohala High School in Kapaau. At 2 p.m., the school will host a drive-through diploma pick up with live stream to be followed by a parade down Akoni Pule Highway.

Makua Lani Christian Academy will close out May 22 holding its commencement ceremony at 6 p.m. at Grace Community Church in Kailua-Kona. The in-person event will have limited guests present.


Kanu o ka Aina New Century Public Charter School in Waimea plans to hold its commencement ceremony May 28. No additional information was available as of press-time Tuesday.

The Hawaii Tribune-Herald contributed to this report.

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