By Ellen Hu
When Denali senior Andrea Atayde learned that the school would be switching to virtual learning for the rest of the year, she was not prepared for the emotional toll that separation from peers would take on her.
“It was just like ‘oh, I have to stop’,” she said. “When we switched it was a moment of shock because I just wasn’t prepared for it.”
Summit Denali High School sent out an email to parents and students on March 13 announcing that students would begin learning virtually for the rest of the year due to concerns surrounding the COVID-19 virus. Students began working virtually the following Monday.
Many seniors share Atayde’s sentiment and miss interaction with their peers.“We’re missing graduation and just not really seeing everyone for a last hurrah,” Denali senior Sierra Scarlett said.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools around the country are searching for ways to celebrate graduating seniors. Summit Denali High School faces the same challenge with the school’s first graduating class.
Denali Executive Director Kevin Bock held a video call meeting on May 5 where he introduced a three-part graduation celebration for Denali’s Class of 2020. This plan consists of a virtual ceremony, a drive-through diploma pick-up and a graduation party.
“We will share more of these details as we get them figured out over the next week or two, and we have a lot of ways we’d like to get your input on a lot of that,” Mr. Bock said as he addressed students during the call.
The virtual graduation ceremony will occur at 5 p.m. on June 5, although the platform which will be utilized has not been determined yet. Members of the graduating class are encouraged to dress in the caps and gowns that will need to pick up from the school campus a week in advance from the event.
The graduation will include the presentation of graduates by mentor groups and speeches from mentors and mentees. Faculty and student speeches are likely to occur, although seniors will be voting for or against this option over the following weeks.
Although Denali senior Nicole Sanchez Steffanoni is still learning to appreciate the plan, she likes “the idea that all of the teachers will be connected and they’re going to give speeches.” She is also looking forward to the possibility of student speeches.
Other students are still looking forward to sharing an important moment in their lives with friends. “I know that you won’t be able to see them in person,” Denali senior Xavier Quijada said, “but to hear them say congrats, that’s the one part I think will shine the brightest in my memory.”
“We have to do it online, so let’s take advantage of that and allow people to invite as many people as possible,” Denali senior Josephine Martensson elaborated on her positive view of the graduation plans.
Mr. Bock further discussed this idea in the meeting, claiming that one advantage of the virtual graduation is the chance to invite “relatives who live far away who were hoping to be able to come up to California to come to your graduation” as well as “relatives who you did not think were going to be able to come to you in-person graduation.”
On June 6, students and their families will participate in a graduation drive-through event to pick up their diplomas. There will possibly be opportunities for photos as well, Mr. Bock said.
Each mentor group will be assigned a block of time to stop by the school. During this time, staff members will be present to cheer students on, a stage for students to take photos on will be available and everything will be decorated. Separate families will be asked to get out of their cars one at a time to maintain social distancing protocols.
Although Santa Clara County banned drive-through graduations, Mr. Bock said that the design of Denali’s celebration meets the county’s social distancing requirements. Denali plans to take measures that will ensure students and their families follow social distancing guidelines, as specified by the county, during the event.
“It’s certainly possible that as guidelines change we may need to change the details for our drive-through diploma pick up as well,” Mr. Bock wrote in an email. “We are absolutely committed to following the guidelines shared by the county and protecting the health and safety of our entire Denali community!”
The final stage of the Class of 2020 graduation is a graduation party. The school plans to host the event “as soon as it’s possible”, according to Mr. Bock. “I promise we will bring the Class of 2020 together,” he said.
For many students, the graduation party is the most exciting element of the plan. “Personally, I think that’s the best part of graduation anyways,” Martensson said. “I think that the giant long ceremony with everyone walking across stage is purely ceremonial — it’s literally pomp and circumstance.”
In the meeting, Mr. Bock stated that hopes of students, parent volunteers, families and teachers have all been consistent regarding the graduation ceremony. “What people are hoping most for is that we will be able to come together and have an in-person graduation, and that people hope that we can do that even if it means waiting and delaying,” he said.
The administration eventually decided against this option due to the uncertain nature of the restrictions. Mr. Bock mentioned that he was worried that if continually pushed out, the final graduation ceremony would feel less like a graduation ceremony since students would have completed their classwork weeks or months in advance.
“This is not the ideal way we would have wanted the graduation ceremony to go,” Mr. Bock said. “We really want to celebrate you in the best way we can.”
Many seniors understand that under the circumstances a large graduation is not possible, but still would have liked the option. “If we were able to do it in an open setting, I would totally take that.” Quijada said.
“Even in middle school I always thought about high school graduation and how it would happen,” Sanchez Steffanoni said. “Now that we’re doing it virtually it’s obviously very different from the traditional ceremony.”
Others find themselves simply focusing on the concept of graduation, not the ceremony. “I know that most parents and my parents want to have a giant ceremony,” Denali senior Kevin Espinal Mital said. “But honestly I don’t really care how we do graduation as long as I graduate somehow.”
Although many are disappointed that they will not get a traditional high school graduation, many are finding ways to look on the bright side.
“That fact that we’re still going through with it all is commendable,” Denali senior John Duroyan said. “This will have to work for our situation.”
“It’s definitely a crazy story that I will end up telling people and my future kids,” Sanchez Steffanoni said. “I think that’s cool.”
FEATURED IMAGE (at top of post): Denali Executive Director Kevin Bock hosts a meeting with the school’s Class of 2020 to outline new graduation plans in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.