Here’s something that seemed like a far-off fantasy less than a year ago: Over the next two weeks, thousands of Seattle-area students will walk across stages set up at school football stadiums and outdoor venues to receive their diplomas, their loved ones sitting in the stands.

There won’t be handshakes with principals or hugs from teachers. Some speeches and performances might be prerecorded. And in some places, the students and families will arrive in cohorts, rather than all at once. But as send-offs go, it’s more normal than what their peers last year had, and far more than what students thought they would get just a few months ago.

“I was holding on to hope,” said Fatima Garcia, a senior at Cleveland STEM High School who will walk across the stage at Seattle’s Memorial Stadium on June 19. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to be a part of.” 

In planning their events this spring, school districts have had to adjust for changing state guidelines around social distancing and large group gatherings. The state also evaluates counties to determine their reopening status every three weeks. Just last week, the state began allowing spectator events at outdoor venues to operate at 50% capacity instead of 25%. In response to that news, some districts such as Shoreline have allowed students to invite more guests.

“Having everybody together and the most amount of tickets possible is what people really seemed to want,” said Curtis Campbell, a spokesperson for the district, which doubled the number of allowed commencement guests from six to 12 for each student. 

Shoreline sought to make the ceremony as traditional as possible, with some modifications. To maximize the number of guests students could bring, the district is holding its ceremonies in a football stadium owned by the Everett School District. Families will have to sit in spaced-out pods as they watch graduates get their diplomas. 

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Seattle Public Schools is taking similar crowd-control precautions. Tickets are limited to four per student. Typically, commencement guests at Cleveland High sit only on one side of Memorial Stadium, Garcia said. This year, guests will spread out. To afford everyone the view of the graduates filing in, the students will have to walk around the perimeter of the field. 

“They told us not to wear heels,” she said. 

To accommodate students or families who don’t feel comfortable attending an in-person ceremony, school districts like Federal Way Public Schools are livestreaming the events, and displaying the photos of graduates who aren’t there to walk across the stage. Students and families also won’t be there all at one time, instead arriving over the span of several hours. 

Not everyone will get a stadium graduation experience. Some school districts such as Kent are opting for drive-thru ceremonies, a common alternative to the traditional ceremonies last year. 

“I’m pretty upset. My classmates around me are upset too,” said Keanna Guizar, a student at Kentwood High School who signed a letter to district officials urging them to change their decision.

Friend groups are finding their own ways to celebrate outside official school plans, said Guizar, including for prom, which most districts chose not to bring back this year. Students at Kentwood organized their own “Senior Sunrise,” arriving before dawn to a park to watch the sky brighten together. Next week, Guizar and her friends will dress up, dine at a restaurant and take pictures at Bellevue Square. 

But after everything, she said, a more traditional rite of passage with her whole graduating class, the people she grew up and experienced a decade of school with, “would really mean a lot.”

Education Lab engagement editor Jenn Smith contributed reporting to this story.