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California

Coronavirus steals graduation ceremonies from high school seniors and their families

Photo Gallery:  Marina High School Graduation
High school graduations ceremonies are yet another casualty to coronavirus school closures.
(Kevin Chang / Los Angeles Times)

Nothing, not even coronavirus-forced school closures, will take away his mother’s pride: Anthony Medina will be the first in the family to graduate from high school.

His mother, Yadira Mora, has long planned to celebrate this family milestone for their University High senior. But that’s not likely to happen at the Westside school — or any other California campus.

“We’re pretty sad about that because he’s going to be the first to actually walk with cap and gown and everything,” Mora said. She and her husband, a gardener, both made it to 12th grade at local high schools but did not earn a diploma.

This week California’s top education official said what many had anticipated but did not want to hear: Don’t expect traditional high school graduation ceremonies for the class of 2020. The announcement was yet another disappointment for high school seniors who lost their prom, senior sports banquets, their last bows at the spring musical and other memories.

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“I’ve had many conversations with educators and parents, and we understand it’s difficult,” said Tony Thurmond, the state’s superintendent of public instruction. “We understand it’s disappointing for those of you who would hope to be in a graduation procession in May or June.”

“Quite frankly, we just don’t know when it will be safe enough for our shelter-in-place and our statewide stay-at-home order to be lifted,” Thurmond said.

L.A. school board member George McKenna, who rose through ranks after being a teacher and principal, said the ritual is simply too vital to casually cast aside.

“We can mail a student a diploma, but the graduation ceremony is an irreplaceable event for the rest of the student’s life. And it’s also an event for the family,” McKenna said. “Students don’t get to this position by themselves. The family has supported them since the day they were born. They want to see this. And they need to see this.”

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Activists from Students Deserve, a youth group with members at around 20 Los Angeles schools, have stressed their desire to participate in a traditional graduation walk.

“We worked a valuable 12 years” to reach this point, said Mya Edwards, 17, a senior at Venice High School. She and other students said they understand that it may not be feasible to have such ceremonies in June, but they want assurances that the class of 2020 doesn’t get skipped over. They are asking L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner to join a Zoom call with students to update them and solicit feedback.

Beutner already has “brainstormed” how to manage the situation with the school board’s official student representative, Frances Suavillo, a senior at Carson High School. Suavillo, an immigrant from the Philippines, will be the first family member to graduate from a U.S. high school.

“My family here and back home were very excited” as they looked forward to seeing her “walk across the stage,” said Suavillo, who’s also the class valedictorian: “The possibility that I may not be able to deliver my speech after four years of hard work is definitely a hard pill to swallow.”

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It’s also hard to imagine not sharing graduation with classmates.

“I would have loved the big ceremony with all the families and the entire class there together. I went to class of 2019’s graduation ... and it was just a beautiful moment watching my incredible friends throw their caps up in the sky.”

Suavillo cannot help but cling to some hope. She noted that, so far, the L.A. Unified School District has extended campus closures only until May 1.

Students and schools in other districts, too, are not wanting to accept the likely scenario, including Riona Sheik at Whitney High School in the ABC Unified School District in Southeast L.A. County.

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“We have so far heard that they still want to hold a physical celebration but they’re not sure how and that they are exploring ‘virtual graduation options,’” Sheik said. “Being from an immigrant family, graduation was super important to both me and my family. To me, I feel like my high school graduation would be my first achievement that would really justify my parents’ decision to come to America.

“Even more than that, I feel like I’ll never really get closure on this chapter of my life and I won’t be able to feel validated that all the work I’ve put in over 13 years was worth it.”

Thurmond’s comments, however, echoed Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has said repeatedly that he did not expect campuses to reopen before the conclusion of the traditional school year. Both officials have emphasized that schooling needs to proceed by distance learning.

They’ve also said that they recognize many students, especially those in low-income families, are in danger of losing ground academically. Newsom said for the first time Thursday that state officials are in preliminary discussions to provide additional academic support over the summer.

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Thurmond said this could include summer school or Saturday classes — and he told Newsom that more funding will be needed than the state and federal emergency aid pledged to date. The risk of disrupted learning is especially acute for seniors who still need to complete graduation requirements.

To that end, L.A. Unified is spending about $100 million on technology for internet hot spots and up to 200,000 computers to loan to students. Officials prioritized helping high school students first because they are closest to graduation.

Districts across the state are struggling with how to measure attendance, how to alter grading and how to satisfy graduation requirements — and even how to get back pricey deposits placed on venues where proms and graduations would have taken place.

Los Angeles school board member Nick Melvoin said the school district will need to find creative ways to mark graduation, whether it’s in late summer or during the Thanksgiving break.

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Ideas should extend beyond graduation, he said.

“Could we get some celebrities to do like a prom night, you know, a live TV event where you had an acknowledgment to seniors around the country, not just in L.A.?” Melvoin said.

San Marino High School senior Austin Nguyen isn’t sure what his school has in mind.

“As of right now, my school has sent various emails and videos stating that they still want to ‘honor’ the class of 2020 and all their accomplishments, so I believe that our graduation festivities ... are being pushed backed to the summer — to which specific month, we know not.”

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But he said he also understands measures taken for the “greater good.”

Mora, Anthony’s mother, said her son remains on track for graduation but that it’s more difficult for him and her two younger children to focus on academics outside of the normal routine.

“It’s not the same as in school, but the teachers are doing amazing” on FaceTime and Zoom, she said. “The teachers are checking up. They’re calling him. They’re calling me. So it’s helping. We just wish they could go back to school.” ]

With or without formal festivities, “We’re proud of Anthony, and we’re planning on celebrating,” Mora said, “but after all of this is over.”

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