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In-person graduations canceled for Newport-Mesa, but families, students make their ‘Hail Mary’

Signs are attached to a fence at Newport Harbor High School. The signs read 'Let us walk' and '13 years for nothing.'
(Courtesy of Kristen Hatfield)

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District Board of Trustees, in conjunction with principals, decided Tuesday to cancel in-person graduations at all of its six high schools in favor of a broadcast.

In a statement to community members Wednesday, the district said that the graduation ceremony would include a live broadcast of the master of ceremonies, guest speakers, a personalized photo and video montage of graduating seniors in addition to the presentation of diplomas. This will affect Corona del Mar, Newport Harbor, Costa Mesa, Early College, Estancia and Back Bay/Monte Vista high schools.

“High school graduation is one of the most memorable moments in life and we know how hard our students and families have worked to get to this point,” the statement reads. “The end of the 2020 school year has been quite different than what we all imagined, but we are committed to celebrate our Class of 2020 with a high quality, purposeful and memorable graduation.”

The graduation will be broadcast by Van Wagner Sports and Entertainment the week of June 15, but the district said that it plans to celebrate seniors with an informal, in-person event later in the summer once state orders and social distancing requirements allow for gatherings to occur.

But, families and students have called on the district to reconsider its plans including Riley DeCinces, a graduating senior at Newport Harbor High School.

“Recently, we’ve been doing a lot of Zooms and online, which we’re still learning and doing all the same assignments, but a big part of our issue is I’ve talked a bunch of my friends and there’s a lot of people we go to school with,” DeCinces said, “but, that we wouldn’t really see again other than in class.”

“I think graduation’s super important. It’s one final place that we can all be together,” DeCinces said.

Johanna Curgus writes that it was just announced that all Newport-Mesa Unified School District graduations would be virtual this year. To the class of 2020 seniors (and their families), it feels like the school board is giving up way too soon.

DeCinces said she had spoken with 10 other seniors and that the group had initially planned on holding a celebration of their own but felt that it wasn’t the same as having the physical graduation ceremony. She added that she felt current plans excluded actual participation from the senior class.

“It sounded like a link to the video they were sending us, which is even worse if we were all on Zoom,” she said.

Corona del Mar senior Nik Darrough said he understood why they couldn’t have an in-person graduation, but that it “sucks not to ... [but] it’s important that we do what’s best for everyone.”

A sign taped to a fence at Newport Harbor High School has the word 'ZOOM' striked out. The Newport-Mesa Unified School District Board of Trustees voted Tuesday to cancel in-person graduations in June.
(Courtesy of Kristen Hatfield)

Sunny Beeker, a parent of a graduating senior at Newport Harbor, said she sent two letters to district Supt. Fred Navarro, raising concerns about why the decision was made a month before the actual graduation ceremony and why commencement could not be delayed until later in the summer.

“We are making a last ditch, Hail Mary, appeal for [the district] to reconsider your decision in the name of keeping it safer for our children, while making them feel that everything was truly considered. We have a month,” Beeker wrote.

“A lot can change in a month,” she said.

Five of the six new coronavirus-related deaths announced in Orange County Friday were among nursing home patients, the county Health Care Agency said.

“We have come too far to not be celebrated in a way where I can graduate on the field with my buddies, classmates and peers,” Braham Duncan, a senior at Newport Harbor, said.

“Us 2020 graduates care more about just having the memory of tossing our caps up in the air with those we grew up with than we do about making sure the parents [and] grandparents are in the stadium,” Duncan said. “We don’t care how spread out we are on the field or even onto the track, we just want that experience of truly graduating.”

Kristen Hatfield, another parent at Newport Harbor, said she was disappointed to hear about the graduation going online because she and other parents had heard it was the last option.

“More than anything, I wanted [my son] and his friends — and all of the seniors — to be able to set foot on campus, one last time, and celebrate with their friends, on a sunny day wearing their caps and gowns. Not at home watching it on their phones,” Hatfield said.

But, Hatfield said, she felt her son and his friends would be able to find a way to still celebrate their graduation and “make it one of the most memorable and defining moments of their teenage years.”

“We realize that not having traditional commencement ceremonies is disappointing — it would be all of our first choice — but know that this decision is based on protecting the safety and well-being of students, staff and families,” said Annette Franco, a spokeswoman for the district.

“We must abide by state orders and social distancing guidelines,” Franco added. “We have a moral imperative to provide the safest environment for our school community, which is why our principals, in collaboration with the district, selected a graduation broadcast.”

Email david.carrillo@latimes.com to sign up for the newsletter featuring the latest news involving Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa, Laguna Beach, Fountain Valley and other parts of Orange County.

The Laguna Beach Unified School District has also made a shift to holding an online graduation ceremony on June 11 and are working on confirming a date or dates for a modified in-person ceremony for the week of July 27, dependent on the lifting of current statewide stay-at-home orders.

The Huntington Beach Union High School District did not announce its plans for graduation as of Friday afternoon and local private schools have not responded to requests for comment on their plans for commencement.

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