For Seattle student Tetiana Mountha, this was the year she finally came into her own.
After spending most of her high-school career buried in volunteer work and extracurriculars, the Cleveland High School senior said she “blossomed” in 2020 and made a tighter circle of friends. Before the coronavirus pandemic broke out, she looked forward to relishing in one final last day of school feeling, a pleasant sensation of closure in her chest.
She won’t get that this year. But her mother, Charm, is determined to make sure the occasion is acknowledged. And if there’s anything the class of 2020 has mastered, it’s how to improvise.
Next week, Tetiana will be hosting a drive-through graduation ceremony in front of her house. A dozen close friends and family members will drive up to a booth, take a photo with her in her robes (and a red dress she bought for the occasion), and drive away.
“In the long run, we’ll figure out a way to have that moment together as a class,” she said.
While their buildings are closed because of the coronavirus, school districts around the Puget Sound region have wrestled with how to preserve some vestiges of this rite of passage. Some schools, like Tetiana’s, are hosting virtual celebrations, with in-person festivities planned for later on.
Each district’s approach has depended on its size and whether its county has been cleared for partial reopening. In Seattle, the district surveyed students and decided to host all ceremonies online.
On Mercer Island, which only has one high school, students will grab their diplomas from a staging area set up behind the Mercer Island High School gym, with staff watching closely to ensure physical distancing. In Snohomish County, which was cleared for the second phase in the state’s reopening plan, the Everett School District has created a covered stage in the parking lot of the Everett Memorial Stadium, where graduates can drive up with their family at a designated time and walk to get their diploma.
Some are also hosting private parties and decorating the cars they’re using to drive up to the ceremonies. Tayla Caw, a senior at Auburn Mountainview High School, will use markers and balloons to deck out the car she’ll use at her school’s drive-in ceremony. Later on, she will come home to a party in her backyard with some extended family members, and do a mock walk across the stage.
“At least I’m graduating and getting my diploma,” Tayla said. “I’m not too picky about it.”
Davie Ross, a senior at Raisbeck Aviation High School in the Highline School District, said she’s used the days leading up to graduation to organize. As a leader of the Burien Youth Council, she helped run a march and a vigil for George Floyd and other Black people who’ve been killed by police.
“Not all of this can happen (only) in Seattle,” she said. “We have to hold one another accountable especially when you live outside the places where daily protesting is going on.”
Graduating from high school will be an important moment, she said. In some ways, her diploma is a symbol of her family’s collective struggle to earn an education. Her mother immigrated to the U.S. at age 19 from the Philippines and had to retrain here, because the education she’d already earned wasn’t recognized.
“Knowing that working hard, even though obviously there are a lot of struggles in between, can get you to a higher place, that’s what made graduation so important for me.” Her school is holding a drive-through graduation ceremony.
“There will be a photographer at the end and I’ll receive my diploma, get back in my car, and drive away. That will be the end of high school,” she said. “If I’m being candid about it, I’ve cried a lot.”
Last Thursday, Kylie Beagles put on her red graduation robe, black sash and a mask, and went to school for the first time since it closed in mid-March.
Kylie, a senior at Sammamish High School in Bellevue, had spent time over the last few years helping plan her class’s graduation ceremony and prom. She had finalized most of the details in the days just before the coronavirus arrived in Washington. She was finally ready to relax.
When it became clear that graduation as usual wasn’t possible, she and her fellow class officers quickly regrouped. They’ve since met dozens of times to coordinate a “prom week” and virtual commencement ceremony. Choir and music students are pre-recording performances. A slideshow of student pictures will appear when it’s time to announce graduating seniors’ names. Several students, including Kylie, returned to school for a day to pre-record commencement speeches.
That’s what Kylie was doing last Thursday. When she walked into the school’s performing arts center, a card with her name was placed on a chair far from other students. “We were trying to keep our social distance, although we wanted to run up to each other and hug,” she said.
A videographer was stationed before the stage. When it was her turn to speak, she pulled off her mask and began.