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Newport-Mesa high school seniors protest for in-person graduations

Students outside of the school district office in Costa Mesa on Tuesday protest the Newport-Mesa Unified School District's decision to not hold in-person graduation ceremonies this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Students outside of the school district office in Costa Mesa on Tuesday protest the Newport-Mesa Unified School District’s decision to not hold in-person graduation ceremonies this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

About 80 Newport-Mesa Unified School District high school seniors gathered Tuesday morning in front of the district office in Costa Mesa, protesting the decision to cancel in-person graduations in the district due to the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic.

The peaceful protesters were from Corona del Mar, Newport Harbor, Costa Mesa and Estancia high schools. Several parents also came in support of the students, all of whom were wearing masks and practicing social distancing. Many held signs that read things like, “Let us walk,” or, “We deserve better.”

The Newport-Mesa board of trustees decided May 19 in conjunction with principals to move to an online broadcast for each of the six high schools in the district, also including Early College and Back Bay/Monte Vista. The live broadcast will contain traditional graduation elements and be produced by Van Wagner Sports and Entertainment, and is to be shown the week of June 15.

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District Board of Trustees decided Tuesday to cancel in-person graduations at its six high schools in favor of a virtual commencement.

Henry Hobin, the Corona del Mar senior class president, proposed that the seniors would like to have their respective graduations postponed to late July. This could increase the possibility for an in-person graduation if current restrictions for in-person gatherings are relaxed by then.

Hobin began a short speech with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “I came to the conclusion that there is an existential moment in your life when you must decide to speak for yourself; nobody else can speak for you.”

Newport Harbor High School student Summer Nedelman, right, and her mother, Renee, left, hold signs in protest of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District's decision to not hold in-person graduation ceremonies this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Newport Harbor High School student Summer Nedelman, right, and her mother, Renee, left, hold signs in protest of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District’s decision to not hold in-person graduation ceremonies this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“We’re very confident, after 12 amazing years of Newport-Mesa education, that the board will listen to our idea and hopefully think of something as similar as possible,” Hobin said. “We are not here to shame. We are not here to ridicule. We’re just here to demonstrate that we care, and that we do not want our hard work and dedication to be honored inappropriately.”

Newport Harbor senior Riley DeCinces, who attended Tuesday’s protest, wrote a letter to the board of trustees last week in favor of the previously scheduled in-person graduation at Davidson Field.

“We just want to show them that we can be safe while doing it,” said DeCinces, the editor-in-chief of the school’s yearbook. “We can stay 6 feet apart. We don’t have to hug, we don’t have to hold hands. We just want that opportunity to be able to graduate with our friends and with our teachers.”

Anna Ellis, a Newport Harbor High School senior, writes that she’s in support of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District board’s decision to hold a virtual graduation.

Newport-Mesa Unified School District spokeswoman Annette Franco said in an email after the protest that an in-person graduation would be the first choice of everyone involved.

“However, we must abide by state orders and social distancing guidelines, as we have a moral imperative to provide the safest environment for our school community,” Franco said. "[That] is why our high school principals, in collaboration with the district, decided to proceed with a graduation broadcast, allowing all students and their families to participate in a safe manner as we abide by state orders and social distancing measures.”

Franco added that district high schools are working with student leaders to plan an in-person senior celebration later this summer.

That may not satisfy many in attendance at Tuesday’s protest. Grant James came in support of his daughter, Megan James, an Estancia senior.

Ava Yacoel, 18, a senior at Corona del Mar High School, holds up a sign protesting the Newport-Mesa Unified School District's decision to not hold in-person graduation ceremonies this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ava Yacoel, 18, a senior at Corona del Mar High School, holds up a sign protesting the Newport-Mesa Unified School District’s decision to not hold in-person graduation ceremonies this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“She’s got a 4.2 grade-point average and she’s been accepted to [UC] Berkeley and everything,” Grant James said. “But still, she’s just like, ‘I want to do my high school walk.’ Thirteen years without anything just doesn’t seem right.”

Orange County high schools have approached the class of 2020’s graduation in different ways. Mater Dei last week announced a drive-in graduation. Tustin Unified School District postponed its in-person high school graduations to early August.

Costa Mesa resident Dawn Finicum would be in favor of solutions like these.

"[The district is] refusing to budge,” said Finicum, who came to the protest along with her son, Michael, a senior at Estancia. “It’s like they want the easy way out, instead of putting in a little effort and creating something that the kids can all participate in together.”

Here are the currently scheduled virtual graduation dates for Newport-Mesa high schools: Early College and Back Bay, June 15; Costa Mesa, June 16; Estancia, June 17; Corona del Mar, June 18; Newport Harbor, June 19.

Henry Hobin, 18, the senior class president at Corona del Mar High School, speaks during a protest of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District's decision to not hold in-person graduation ceremonies this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Henry Hobin, 18, the senior class president at Corona del Mar High School, speaks during a protest of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District’s decision to not hold in-person graduation ceremonies this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

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