As COVID-19 upends high-school graduations across the country, some students are waging “peaceful protests” to fight for in-person ceremonies.
On Tuesday, dozens of seniors in well-heeled Orange County, California, held a rally at their school district offices in Costa Mesa. The students—who wore protective masks and observed six feet of separation—carried signs like “Let Mesa Walk,” “We Deserve Better,” and “Graduation 2020 We Can Do This Safely!!”
The rally comes a week after the Newport-Mesa Unified School District decided to trade the traditional commencement for an online version of it, citing state orders and social-distancing guidelines relating to the coronavirus pandemic.
Henry Hobin, senior class president at Corona del Mar High in Newport Beach, quoted civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. as he addressed the crowd, which included supportive parents but none of the targeted decision-makers.
“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,” Hobin said, according to an Los Angeles Times report on the event.
Asked if he recited King because he felt the graduations amounted to a civil rights issue, he said, “MLK is one of my role models. I think he’s one of the greatest leaders of all time. We held a peaceful protest; I couldn’t think of someone better to start my speech with.”
“I wouldn’t say this is a civil rights issue,” Hobin added.
Hobin told The Daily Beast that he spent Memorial Day weekend helping to organize the demonstration. He and fellow student activists (who hail from Costa Mesa, Estancia and Newport Harbor high schools) are asking administrators to postpone their rite of passage until late July, when COVID restrictions may be more relaxed.
If they can’t enjoy a socially-distanced gathering, the seniors would like a creative alternative like a drive-through graduation—something that’s being rolled out elsewhere in California and nationwide, including school districts in Hawaii, Wisconsin, Missouri and Arizona. One private Christian school in Las Vegas even celebrated at a racetrack last week, allowing 256 seniors to receive their diplomas before driving a “victory lap.” The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home to the Indy 500 and NASCAR races, is also planning to host a local high-school ceremony.
Meanwhile, in Atlanta, a prep school that held a “drive-in” graduation recently announced one senior in attendance tested positive for COVID and that “several” classmates did, too. It’s unclear whether the virus spread to the students at the ceremony or outside campus, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
As for the Newport-Mesa district, Hobin said he was elected to represent the Class of 2020 and will do everything he can to fight the school board’s decision.
Hobins said that for many students, digital graduations won’t cut it. “For the past two or three months, everything’s been online. We didn't have a prom. We don’t get a grad night. Don’t get to finish our last sports season,” he said.
“We just want this last memento from our childhood, with the kids we grew up with since kindergarten. We want to see them in person, even if we can’t high-five them or shake their hands,” he added. “There’s a lot of kids I'll probably never see again if we do this online. That's troubling to me—the unfinished goodbyes.”
But the school district, in a statement, said that while it respects students’ free speech, the online pomp-and-circumstance is a done deal.
“We realize that not having traditional, in-person commencement ceremonies is disappointing—it would be all of our first choice. 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,” said Annette Franco, a spokeswoman for the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.
Franco said schools will work with students to plan an in-person “senior celebration” for later this summer if the state’s coronavirus orders permit. She added that the entertainment company Van Wagner Sports and Entertainment, which “works with all the major sporting leagues, NCAA and recently broadcast the University of Southern California’s 2020 commencement ceremony,” will produce the online graduations.
Still, Hobin told The Daily Beast he believes “there’s a solution between in person and online that doesn’t pose a threat.”
Carrie Williams Freitas, who runs a Newport Beach PR and marketing agency, has helped push the students’ message. “I’m far from a COVID denier. I am very concerned with COVID and my family is extremely committed to safety measures,” said Freitas, whose daughter is a graduating senior in the district.
Freitas said parents have lobbied the superintendent for weeks, but the decision was made without public discussion. If other Orange County school districts are plotting face-to-face graduations for late July and August, why can’t they, she asked.
“They feel very isolated and sad in general, not just about graduation,” Freitas said of the students. “There was no goodbye.”
Nearly four hours north, 40 seniors in Visalia, California, were protesting their district’s drive-through ceremony option on Tuesday, chanting “Let us walk!” (Freitas says that demonstration was separate from the Costa Mesa effort and likely a coincidence.)
Maria Villela, an accountant and the parent of a senior in Riverside County, launched a petition aimed at Gov. Gavin Newsom, requesting traditional high-school graduations during California’s phase two or phase three reopenings. Her oldest daughter, Jasmine, is scheduled to graduate in a drive-through at John F. Kennedy Middle College High in Norco.
“When everything is being taken from you, you want something. I was thinking, ‘Please no virtual graduation.’ A drive-through is better than virtual but everybody ultimately wants the real thing,” she said.
Villela described herself as a mom who believes there’s a solution to every problem. She said, “We can go to the grocery store, to Costco, Walmart and Target and stand in these long lines with our masks and social distancing, so why can’t we do that with graduations?”
In Corpus Christi, Texas, seniors gathered for a rally Sunday to speak out against Tuloso-Midway High School’s graduation plans, which involve splitting the ceremonies into two nights in June at the football stadium. The students will be separated based on their last names and permitted a maximum of two guests.
At the event, which students are calling a “unification” instead of a protest, one young woman raised a neon sign declaring: “More than 2 people raised me!” Another sign read, “A maximum of ‘4’ isn't gonna hurt us anymore.” The students didn’t wear masks but held hands in prayer, according to photos of the occasion.
Jarrod Jones, a senior who plans to study law enforcement or police science, said that counter-protesting pupils showed up to heckle his group and pointed out the nearly 100,000 fatalities from COVID nationwide. (Corpus Christi, data shows, has had 268 cases of the virus and three deaths. Those seemingly low infection numbers are one reason why Jones says a fuller graduation is possible.)
Jones said his girlfriend’s last name begins with a “C,” and the cutoff is “H,” for the first group, so he’ll miss seeing her walk.
“It’s OK if it has to come down to splitting the class, but we want four family members,” he said. “What we want is for our family to be there.”