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High school graduations go mobile under COVID-19 restrictions

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Eric Davidove/Special to the Town Crier
Mountain View and Los Altos high schools held drive-in graduation video viewing ceremonies last weekend.

Not too long ago, it looked like the coronavirus pandemic was going to force schools to nix in-person graduation ceremonies altogether. However, as restrictions started to loosen, local high schools organized celebrations, albeit unlike the graduations of years past.

Mountain View and Los Altos high schools held drive-in graduation video viewing ceremonies last weekend in the tailgate parking lot of the San Jose Earthquakes’ Avaya Stadium. Played on a large projector screen, the videos featured compiled footage of graduates in their caps and gowns taken last month when they came to campus to collect their diplomas. The videos also included a graduation speech from the respective principals, as well as student speeches.

Although different from a traditional graduation, Mountain View High senior Cate Schiller said she felt like her school did a good job of re-creating the experience, within pandemic restrictions.

“I think that it definitely embodied what an actual ceremony would have been like,” Schiller said. “For what they could do, I think it really was a good experience.”

Santa Clara County’s public health order allows for drive-in events of up to 100 vehicles. To comply, each high school held five separate ceremonies, spread across the weekend.

Los Altos High School assistant principal Suzanne Woolfolk spearheaded the effort, working with students, school staff and outside groups to organize the event. One of the most important parts of the process, she said, was getting feedback from seniors about what they wanted from their graduation.

“There was so much seniors couldn’t control about the end of the year, we really wanted to make sure that we took their feedback,” Woolfolk said.

Embracing change

Creating a video of graduates in their caps and gowns and then viewing it together, emerged as top priorities. The district worked with community television station KMVT to produce the video, and the San Jose Earthquakes donated use of their tailgate lot.

Parents and students sat in their cars, many decorated with congratulatory messages, often honking when a senior they knew came on screen. In all, about a third of the graduating class turned out for the ceremonies, administrators estimated.

For Mountain View High’s Kaia Ralston, at first it was difficult to know that she wouldn’t get to experience the full ceremony past graduates had enjoyed. Once she came to terms with that, though, Ralston said she had fun trying to help plan the best possible substitute. As senior class secretary, she read a portion of the graduates’ names in the video.

“It was really hard to finally accept that this isn’t going to be a traditional graduation, this is going to be different,” she said. “But there’s nothing wrong with different; sometimes it can be better – you’ve just got to look at the bright side.”

David Peters, who gave one of Mountain View High’s student graduation speeches, said he was sad, but not altogether surprised, when the traditional graduation ceremony was canceled. Peters’ graduation speech focused on the importance of acknowledging and embracing change.

“If high school has taught us anything, it’s that the presence of change is not something to be afraid of,” he said. “On the contrary, it is a signal that our voices are needed now, more than ever.”

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