By Aliyya Swaby, Texas Tribune
A jam-packed auditorium or gymnasium. Hugs from fellow graduates. Rows of family members and friends whooping and standing to watch their cap-and-gowned seniors cross the stage.
The typical high school graduation isn’t going to happen in Texas anytime soon, with all public and private schools closed through the end of the academic year. State officials on Tuesday announced restrictions for how school districts can conduct in-person graduation ceremonies for their seniors, limiting them to protect school communities from contracting COVID-19.
School districts can keep their ceremonies completely virtual, celebrate seniors while they drive in a procession, knit pictures of individual seniors into a graduation video, or host a socially-distanced outdoor ceremony, said Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath.
“We are publishing today guidance that will allow graduation and end-of-year promotion ceremonies…to occur in schools subject to certain constraints,” he said. He laid out the details of those constraints in official Texas Education Agency guidelines Tuesday.
With parents and students clamoring for answers over the last few months, some school districts have already planned socially-distanced ceremonies to celebrate their graduates in person.
Allen High School in North Texas’ Allen ISD is holding a graduation ceremony across four stages and requiring each family keep 25 feet away from each other. Students, limited to five family members, will walk across one of the stages in the order they sign up for a time slot — a ceremony expected to take about 10 to 11 hours.
Texas Motor Speedway, which hosts the NASCAR races, will host individual graduation ceremonies for high schools across Denton County in mid to late May. Families will have to remain in their cars to watch the ceremony, which will also be projected on the track’s 21-story-high video screen.
Other school communities have hosted parades for their seniors, who drove decorated cars through neighborhood streets while people came out of their homes and cheered them on.
Even so, the cancellation of typical graduations left seniors across the state crestfallen. Adrian Ojeda, who is 17 and a senior in Round Rock Independent School District, got an email from district officials several days ago officially canceling the regular graduation. He was at fast-food restaurant Whataburger, where he has been working 36 hours a week to help support his family and pay off his car loan.
“That kind of ruined my day figuring that out,” he said.
Round Rock ISD is hosting a virtual graduation in June, a socially-distanced in-person graduation in late May and is considering a typical in-person ceremony in August, if restrictions on large gatherings are lifted.
Ojeda went to Stony Point High School Monday to pick up his cap and gown and fought back tears when he saw the school building. He had hoped the COVID-19 cases would drop enough to bring him back this week. Graduating from high school has been a tough road for him. Struggles with anxiety caused his grades to drop in junior and senior years, and he had to redo algebra classes after failing them.
This year, he was going to show his pig at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo through the Future Farmers of America, but the rodeo was canceled after an attendee tested positive.
“I had my last day of high school and I didn’t even know it,” Ojeda said. “I hated school but now I’m like, I would do anything to be able to go back.”