This past weekend marked the final wave of regularly scheduled high school graduation ceremonies in Minnesota. Some have opted to postpone the event to a date later this summer, banking on more relaxed social distancing guidelines that will allow for larger in-person gatherings.
Even those clinging to hopes of a more traditional commencement experience would describe the final weeks of their senior year as anything but. They’ve been doing school from home since mid-March, after the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to transition to a distance learning format. Spring sports were canceled, along with proms, spring performances and awards banquets.
For students in the St. Paul Public Schools district, the disruption began about a week earlier, when their teachers went on strike. And the school year came to a close in the midst of protests that spread nationwide and beyond in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Determined to still honor their 2020 graduates, school leaders across the state came up with alternative commencement ceremony plans — settling on everything from completely virtual events to drive-through ceremonies.
Mindful of social distance guidance from state public health officials, MinnPost trailed seven graduates from five different high schools last week to capture their nontraditional graduation experiences.
Washington Technology Magnet School & Central Senior High School
Both of these St. Paul Public Schools high schools held completely virtual graduations on June 3 — a format that the district announced for all of its schools on the last day of April. Families had the option to livestream the event online, watch it on cable TV, or catch an archived version for a later viewing. All graduation speakers prerecorded their speeches, in their caps and gowns. The speeches played at the beginning, then each graduate’s headshot showed up on the screen as their name was read aloud in lieu of walking across a stage to receive their diploma. Many schools also added personalized touches like additional photos from throughout the school year and student musical performances — also recorded in a virtual setting — to commemorate graduates.
Bao Vang, 18, got to fulfill a long-time dream of delivering a farewell commencement address, which she watched alongside her parents in her living room on graduation day, texting with her Washington Tech friends as it aired. “Everything has been hard on all of us, but on the bright side, we all made it,” she said.
This fall, she plans to attend Augsburg University, on a full-ride scholarship, to study business administration and finance.
Cassie DeVries, 18, also delivered a prerecorded graduation speech to her Central Senior High School peers, which she watched surrounded by a small group of family and friends as it streamed live on June 3. She talked about missed opportunities to make the in-person memories they’d all envisioned for their senior year and shared words of encouragement. “This finish line was brought to us,” she said.
In the fall, she plans to attend Gustavus Adolphus College to study economics.
Eden Prairie High School
Based on student and parent input on alternative graduation ceremony plans that school officials collected through an online survey, the Eden Prairie High School graduation ceremony, originally slated for June 5, has been postponed to July 31. By breaking the graduating class into smaller groups and holding multiple in-person ceremonies outdoors, district officials hope to maintain a fairly traditional graduation ceremony experience. Prom has also been moved to July 25 and will be held at US Bank Stadium, with the possibility that it may still be canceled due to COVID-19.
Troy Brown, 18, returned to Eden Prairie High School on June 4 to return his school-issued laptop and to pick up his cap and gown. School officials staggered seniors by assigning them time slots. They also taped arrows along the floor, directing students on a one-way course through the school.
Brown says he enjoyed seeing some of the staff he liked playing basketball with during the school year. “I just wish we still could have come to school, because it’s like you’re missing a part of it,” he said while trying his cap on outside of the school building.
He plans to attend either Mankato State University or another local college for two years, then transferring to a school in the south, to be closer to his extended family members.
Cristo Rey Jesuit High School
This private Catholic school, located right off Lake Street in Minneapolis (at 2924 4th Ave. S.) sustained a few broken windows from the protests after the death of George Floyd. Staff boarded them up in advance of the school’s drive-through graduation ceremony, held on June 6. Each graduate had instructions to pack family members into one vehicle, and to pull up to one of two stations, where they received a diploma cover and posed for two photos — one alone, and one with two family members.
Jennifer Agustin Ambrocio, 17, drove through the mini in-person graduation ceremony with her parents and three younger sisters. She says she was a bit nervous at first because she didn’t know what to expect. But seeing her teachers wave from the school’s rooftop and getting that in-person, formal recognition left her “feeling grateful.”
She plans to attend the College of Saint Benedict, on a full-ride scholarship, to study prelaw in the hopes of becoming an immigration lawyer.
Jaylen Cargill, 18, drove through with his mother and niece, with a few other immediate family members parking nearby and walking over to capture his official graduation photo op as well. He was pleasantly surprised by the event: “I thought it was going to be bland,” he said. “I didn’t expect all of this.”
He plans to attend Point Park University, in downtown Pittsburgh, this fall, on a basketball scholarship, to study electrical engineering.
Delano High School
While most high schools in Greater Minnesota wrapped up graduation events in May, Delano High School waited until June 7 to hold a hybrid event. At 1:30 p.m., students watched a video portion that included remarks from school leaders and traditional graduation speeches, from home. Then they all filed to the high school — one graduate, plus immediate family members per vehicle — to take turns walking across a mini stage for an official photo op. As they drove up, each graduate received a face mask, embroidered with the school mascot, and social distancing instructions.
Tate Pappas, 18, pulled up in a convertible with his three older siblings and his parents, happy to make the most of a graduation event set-up unlike anything that his family had experienced before. “I’m just really grateful that we have a graduation,” he said, noting he especially appreciated the in-person element.
He plans to attend the University of Illinois at Chicago this fall to study business and run both track and cross country.
Olivia Taylor, 18, pulled up to the graduation stage station set up in front of the tennis courts in a van with her mother, step-father and two siblings. While waiting in line, her 9th-grade language arts teacher commemorated her with an impromptu guitar solo and song. “I’m surprised I didn’t cry at all today — no happy tears,” she said, before driving home to continue celebrating with family and a few friends.
She plans to attend the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse to study elementary education.