Following a Liberty Union High School District board meeting held May 6, Superintendent Eric Volta announced the district tentatively plans to conduct in-person commencement ceremonies for the nearly 1,900 seniors in the district expected to graduate this year.
“Pending shelter-in-place orders, we have pushed back the commencements to June 22, 23 and 24,” he said. “Right now, we’re planning on these commencements being student only. If we cannot hold those ceremonies per the current shelter-in-place orders, then we’ll have a virtual ceremony.”
With the school year quickly drawing to a close, school administrators are trying to develop graduation plans that will recognize students’ achievements while adhering to a continuously evolving set of restrictions resulting from the statewide stay-at-home order.
“Graduation is the most important event on our campuses each year,” said Carrie Wells, Heritage High School principal “As a district, I feel that we are trying our best to have plans that keep with the spirit of the traditional ceremonies offering an opportunity for families to create positive memories during this unprecedented time.”
This week, Contra Costa Health Services (CCHS) issued graduation guidance that urged school administrators to forego in-person graduations in favor of virtual ceremonies. The county did issue guidelines for two types of graduation ceremony options including a drive-thru diploma pickup and an in-person graduation for gatherings of less than 25 graduates. However, even the drive-thru option compels administrators to limit ceremonies to a maximum of 200 cars. With more than 500 graduates each at Liberty, Heritage and Freedom high schools, that cap presents a serious logistical challenge.
“We recognize the need for people to connect and celebrate,” said Dr. Chris Farnitano, Contra Costa County health officer. “However, gatherings like graduation ceremonies are a major contributor to the spread of COVID-19.”
It is unclear at this point how the county’s guidance on graduation will impact LUHSD’s graduation plans.
The current shelter-in-place order in effect for Contra Costa County is slated to expire May 31. So far, CCHS has given little indication as to whether the existing order will be extended in its current form or if restrictions will be eased. At the state level, Gov. Gavin Newsom has spent the last two weeks outlining the conditions under which restrictions can be loosened, but Contra Costa County, along with six other Bay Area counties and the City of Berkeley, has held firm and allowed no such action.
“All of our plans are based upon the county health orders,” Volta said. “We’re not thumbing our nose at the county health services department. They’ve been a great help and a great resource. We are still planning on complying with whatever shelter-in-place orders are in place at the time. When the new health orders come out for June, that’s when we’ll make a decision one way or the other.”
Despite conversations about the pandemic, school officials have not lost sight of how this school year and this graduation have gone far astray from the expectations of the district’s seniors.
“We have all been dreaming of the day we get to suffer through sitting in the hot sun during June just to walk across that stage,” explained Kiala Kieffer, a graduating senior at Freedom High School. “I am missing out on all the fun end-of-year senior activities; the rallys, the senior ditch day, the day we get to practice our graduation. And most of all, we missed out on saying goodbye. We never knew the day before spring break would be our last day.”
Caps and gowns have been distributed to seniors. Recognition ceremonies for athletic and academic achievements have been held virtually. But plans for the graduation day ceremonies are still developing. Given the heat that can be expected in late June, Volta expects commencement to be held earlier or later in the day. The events may be viewable online as they happen, but at the least, they will be taped for later viewing. And plans to deal with spectators who may not be able to resist the urge to peer through a fence to watch the proceedings are being considered. These are all reminders to those involved how different this year’s graduation will be from any that have come before, and hopefully, any that will come after it.
“Our goal is to provide (students) with the most meaningful event possible under the current restrictions,” Liberty High School Principal Heather Harper said. “Our students have worked exceptionally hard, and we know what graduation means not only to them, but their families. Our students will be stronger and more resilient, because they have had to overcome the loss of what they thought the end of their senior year would be. But hopefully, they will see that, while this year may look different, it will be unique and something only they will get to experience.”