Briauna Leonard graduated from high school at home wearing pajamas and sitting at her kitchen table beside her cat, Mr. Pickles, watching the salutatory address that she recorded a week earlier in an almost empty auditorium.
“It was a little heartbreaking, honestly, to work your way up for 12 years, and you look forward to all these things — senior prom and graduation, senior week, and the senior trip,” says Leonard, a new graduate of Groves High School in Savannah, Georgia. “I just kind of had to look at it like, at least I was getting a graduation, and I made it to the end.”
During the virtual ceremony on May 13, which was live streamed on YouTube and broadcast on TV, Principal Timothy Cox congratulated graduates on reaching that milestone in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted their final weeks of high school.
“You went from working in a classroom to working 100 percent online,” he said. “You went from dreams of having a standard graduation to a virtual one. You went from working part-time, probably just to pay your bills, to some of you working full-time to help support your families. And you did all this while taking classes.”
“The world changed,” Cox said. “And you changed with it.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered thousands of schools across the country and canceled large group gatherings, including graduations. It has thrust new responsibilities onto teens during a pivotal time in their lives and made their futures more uncertain. Now, instead of packing auditoriums, gymnasiums and football fields with graduates and their families, schools have shifted to virtual ceremonies or socially distant celebrations at drive-in movie theaters, school parking lots or the Daytona International Speedway. Some schools have delayed graduations or scheduled individual ceremonies at which a graduate can walk across a stage and receive their diploma, with just immediate family in attendance.
Ella Potee, a senior at Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield, Mass., will graduate at the drive-in movie theater where she once watched Toy Story, Jurassic Park and last year’s live-action Lion King. In a few weeks, she will deliver a valedictorian speech to her 40 classmates as they sit in their cars, listening to her over the radio, watching her up on a screen made for movies.
“I grew up going to movies there with my family. I had dates there with boyfriends,” says Potee, 18. “It’s just this place in your town where everyone convenes in the summer. And to have it be the place where we’re all ending our senior year is going to be really exciting.”
At the graduation on June 4, “Pomp and Circumstance” will play as seniors drive to assigned parking spots at the Northfield Drive-In. Speakers will approach a podium one at a time. When graduates’ names are called, they’ll get out of their cars and walk up to retrieve their diploma off a table, without shaking anyone’s hand. When the ceremony ends, there will be a fireworks show, and graduates can stick around to watch a movie of their choice.
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“This is making lemonade out of lemons. It’s dancing in the rain. It’s celebrating our successes, even with what the world is facing now,” Principal Kevin Burke says, adding that the ceremony is critical to recognizing the struggles many students have gone through to earn their diplomas. “I think a celebration is really important.”
School officials across the country agree, and many are going to great and creative lengths to make graduation day memorable. The Northfield Drive-In alone has received inquiries about playing host to a dozen other graduation events, for everyone from 6th-graders to medical school students. But for thousands of young adults about to leave high school, who’ve missed proms, senior trips and the chance to say goodbye in-person to their classmates, this once-in-a-lifetime moment is bittersweet, another reminder that the world they grew up in no longer exists.
Kasandra Acosta, a senior at Victor Valley High School in Victorville, Calif., tried on her cap and gown last week, texted a selfie to her mom, and cried. “It was really heartbreaking, realizing that I might not actually get to wear it for a graduation,” says Acosta, the first in her family to graduate high school. Her school is planning a drive-thru graduation event on May 26. Seniors will pick up their diplomas and walk across a stage while wearing a cap and gown and a mask with a school logo on it. Families will be required to stay in their cars.
The approach to graduation this year varies significantly by state and by school district, a reminder of the disparate approach to the virus itself, as some states move to reopen businesses while others remain in lockdown. The various graduation plans also reflect the economic disparities among school districts; several require students or their families to have vehicles.
At White County High School in Cleveland, Georgia, officials are creating their own drive-in, renting a four-story tall screen for a graduation of about 250 seniors in the school parking lot on May 22. The school plans to follow the traditional graduation format as best it can. The school principal and superintendent will walk from car to car, handing diplomas to seniors as a camera follows them so the crowd can watch.
“The biggest goal we have is that this graduation will be so fantastic, that we want our juniors to be jealous,” says White County Assistant Principal Adam Wiley, who has a background in theater and has been planning the graduation like he would choreograph a show. “We need to honor their work and celebrate them in a fashion that is befitting of what they’re dealing with.”
In Florida, about 1,050 high school seniors from the Flagler County School District will graduate at the Daytona International Speedway on May 31, seated in their cars with their families. After speeches from a couple of students and school officials, graduates will be told to start their engines and drive to the finish line, where a principal wearing a mask and gloves will hand them their diplomas before letting each grad take a victory lap around the race track.
“This will be one for the books,” says Flagler Schools Superintendent James Tager. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime deal.”
Isabella Scarcella, the student body president of Flagler Palm Coast High School, will be one of the graduates. And after a “weird and unsettling” end to her senior year, the 17-year-old is looking forward to the event, even if it’s not the graduation ceremony she had been expecting. “I know it’s going to be very different doing it on the speedway,” she says. “But at least we’re still literally and metaphorically crossing a finish line.”
Texas has approved outdoor in-person graduation ceremonies in June as long as attendees stay at least six feet apart and are questioned about possible COVID-19 symptoms beforehand, but the Houston Independent School District is taking a more conservative approach. Its 11,000 high school seniors will graduate virtually, interim district superintendent Grenita Lathan announced, calling it “one of the most difficult decisions I have ever confronted as the district leader.”
Seniors in the Los Angeles Unified School District also are restricted to online graduations after public health officials said options that included renting out Dodger Stadium or the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum were not safe. New York City is planning a citywide virtual graduation ceremony for high school seniors. “You may not have the traditional ceremony that you were looking forward to,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a press conference. “We’re going to give you something you will remember for the rest of your life.”
Acosta in Victorville knows her graduation will be nothing like what she’d imagined: family members and friends packing the stands on the school football field and descending to hug the seniors and take photos. In an email announcing the new plan for graduation, her principal reminded seniors: “At no time during the event will you be shaking hands with or hugging anyone.”
The anticlimactic ending has been tough. “It means a lot to me because most of my family came from Mexico, and they didn’t get the opportunity to finish school,” Acosta says. “My Mom has always told me, ‘I want you to do things that I never got to do,’ and this was such a big part of it.”
In Savannah, Leonard, mentioned the pandemic’s effect on her class during her speech. “It means missing the cheers of my friends and family as my name is called to receive my diploma. It means missing out on the opportunity to say last goodbyes to my closest friends as we will soon be miles apart,” she said, before congratulating her classmates for thriving despite the challenges.
“Let’s give it up to the class of 2020,” she said. “May we never have to worry about toilet paper again.”
Viren Mirchandani, valedictorian at Jenkins High School in Savannah, regretted that he wouldn’t get to walk into graduation side-by-side with his friends or see their faces while delivering his speech. “That would’ve been an amazing moment for me, something to look back on when I’m older,” he said. “I don’t really get to cherish the memory with all those people.”
Instead, like Leonard, he tuned in to his virtual graduation from home on Wednesday morning with his parents, grandparents and younger sister.
They listened to remarks from school officials and to Mirchandani’s own pre-recorded valedictorian speech, and heard each graduate’s name as their photo appeared on screen. Then, Jenkins High School Principal Heather Handy asked every graduate, “wherever you are,” to stand, “hopefully wearing that bright red cap and gown.”
“I ask that you stand tall and you be proud, for you will forever be remembered as the graduating class who made milestones and history, as the world addressed a global pandemic,” she said.
In kitchens and living rooms around Savannah, 241 high school seniors moved the tassel on their cap from right to left and graduated.
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Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com