Graduating from high school is a memorable moment in the life of every student. In fact, most adults of all ages look back on their graduation ceremony with fondness and maybe a twinge of nostalgia.
This year, memories may be different for the class of 2020, especially those from the Newport Mesa Unified School District, which includes Newport Harbor High and Corona del Mar High.
On May 20, the NMUSD Board of Education sent a letter to the class of 2020 students and families informing them of the board’s decision to forgo the traditional in-person graduation at the end of June in favor of a virtual one that would include “a live broadcast of the master of ceremonies, guest speakers, a personalized photo/video montage of our graduating seniors, and presentation of diplomas. Students also will get a virtual copy of the ceremony as a keepsake of this once-in-a-lifetime graduation experience.”
The letter noted that “graduations across the nation have been impacted by the current health crisis. The need to protect the health of students, staff and families continues to be a priority, which is why we are unable to proceed with our traditional graduation ceremonies. The graduation ceremony broadcast will not be the only way we celebrate the Class of 2020. If State orders and social distancing requirements allow it, our high schools plan to celebrate seniors with an informal, in-person event later this summer.”
Those virtual plans did not sit well with students or parents.
One parent, Carrie Williams Freitas, a graduate of Corona del Mar High School, has a daughter graduating from Newport Harbor High. She immediately sent an email to the NMUSD school board protesting the plan.
“I am dismayed by your decision to make NMUSD high school graduations virtual, without any seeming consideration of the students who have worked so hard and gone through so much to get to this point,” wrote Freitas in her email. “You have made thousands of NMUSD seniors deeply distraught and disappointed today. I truly am dumbfounded by your decision, which seems to have been made behind closed doors with no vote or transparency. Is that normal procedure? I should hope not. I would think there would be more consideration and care taken for what your constituents desire.”
In her email, Freitas suggested a delayed graduation, or one with “students socially distanced on the field, no walking, but at least together, in person, with parents even at home watching a livestream.”
Freitas received a response from NMUSD Superintendent Dr. Frederick Navarro, who acknowledged that “not having a traditional, in person, graduation is a great disappointment. I would like to let you know that this was not an easy decision. It would have been easier to hold a traditional commencement without researching the risks to the health of our students, families and the greater community. As educators, there is no higher responsibility than to keep our students safe and healthy and we are held accountable to that standard. This has been our primary concern throughout the past weeks and the primary reason for recommending a live broadcast graduation.”
Dr. Navarro went on to cite state guidelines restricting large gatherings, and also CDC guidelines for the reopening of schools.
“As a former high school principal, the loss of commencement is hurtful to me as I know it is for our principals,” wrote Dr. Navarro. “However, as I stated before, we are held to a high standard in all student safety matters and all of the information we collected concluded that gathering a large group for commencement is not safe for our students, their families and our staff. We surely understood that restrictions on large group gatherings would not be lifted in time for commencement. Therefore, we weighed all of this information and made the hard decision that is in the best of our students.”
While numerous parents wrote to the NMUSD school board expressing their dismay, local students sprang into action and organized a peaceful protest.
On Tuesday, May 26, at 11 a.m., nearly 70 students wearing masks and carrying signs gathered in the NMUSD parking lot, socially distancing thanks to markers on the ground every six feet. They applauded speaker Henry Hobin, Corona del Mar High School Senior Class President and one of the organizers of the protest, as he spoke to the students and a handful of parents.
“It’s impressive how passionate our community is about this issue,” Hobin told his fellow students. “Martin Luther King, Jr. once said ‘I came to the conclusion that there is a moment in your life when you must decide to speak for yourself. Nobody else will speak for you.’ We all decided to speak for ourselves, because we feel that a virtual graduation is not a good way to celebrate the class of 2020.”
Based on feedback from his fellow seniors, Hobin stated that “a broadcast or virtual ceremony is not a special ceremony. We deserve better. We the class of 2020 desire a better solution that follows the law and puts no one at risk of getting the coronavirus. We are asking to reconsider postponing our graduation until the end of July, and by this time we can have some sort of celebration.”
Hobin added that “we do not want our hard work and dedication to be honored inappropriately. The class of 2020 will go down as one of the strongest, one of the bravest, and one of the unluckiest classes of all time.”
Students, and parents, now await a response to the protest.