Gracie Oliver entered her senior year with caution, not fully knowing what to expect because the pandemic had everything “turned upside down.”
Many students were unsure if schools would hold classes in person or virtually, if they would get to attend events that were scrapped last year or even if they’d see their friends and teachers on a daily basis.
Students missed out on many traditions they had looked forward to since they were freshmen — from dances to sporting events.
Oliver especially felt the absence of the day-to-day interactions between other Richardson High School students and her teachers because of social distancing, desk shields and not being able to fully participate in clubs.
“It just kind of felt a little lackluster,” she said.
But throughout the year, she appreciated that her school’s faculty and staff made efforts to make sure students felt understood, appreciated and, now, celebrated.
In April, for example, the school held a “Walk Down Memory Lane” event at which seniors toured the decoration-clad campus featuring photos of them, a superlative hall of fame and a red carpet experience.
And now, the school was set to have one of the most important traditions at the end of May: in-person graduation ceremonies, something many seniors across the nation missed last year because of the pandemic.
“I’m very nostalgic and sad to graduate, but I’m really excited,” said Oliver, who plans to attend the University of Texas where she will major in advertising.
This year most school districts are planning in-person graduation ceremonies, though attendance may be limited because of spacing concerns. Many will also broadcast the ceremonies online for those who are unable to attend.
Tabitha Branum, Richardson ISD’s deputy superintendent, said the district’s four high schools have had two priorities in mind while planning for graduations: keeping everyone safe and making sure students felt celebrated after an “unconventional” year.
Officials felt the weight of trying to follow traditions as closely as possible while preventing the spread of COVID-19, Branum said.
The district held graduation ceremonies at an indoors conference center in Garland before the pandemic, which limited the guests that students could invite to the ceremonies. But because RISD high schools are moving the events to stadiums this year, the approximately 2,400 graduating seniors can invite a whopping 12 people each.
“We’ve had this opportunity to learn and think about these events differently and hold on to the traditions, but maybe even improve upon them,” she said.
Fort Worth ISD did not struggle planning the ceremonies this year because they had “last year to practice,” spokesman Clint Bond said. At the only in-person ceremony the district held in 2020, students quickly got their diplomas and “boom, were gone,” Bond said.
This year, approximately 4,800 Fort Worth seniors will only be able to invite four people each to their graduations, which will be at stadiums. Bond said the graduations will be more rewarding after parents said last year’s events felt impersonal.
“This is an opportunity for us to recognize the students that have earned their diplomas and to thank those families that have been involved, and to make everybody still feel safe,” he said.
Ray Merrill, Garland ISD’s area director, said officials are excited to have the high school graduations at the Curtis Culwell Center again after having to change locations last year.
The center, which has 6,860 seats, will hold students from GISD’s eight high schools who each will get to invite seven people.
Because some might be hesitant to attend, the district’s plans will make sure each high school’s total number of seniors and their guests are below the center’s capacity.
Although it has been a tireless year with constant planning and replanning, Merrill said providing a sliver of normalcy has been worth it.
The district is also working closely with the high schools on contact tracing by having each row of students travel to the ceremony’s location in the same bus.
Mark Ramirez, a Dallas ISD deputy chief, called this year’s graduating class the most resilient in the district’s history because of how much they’ve endured in the past year.
With a daughter about to graduate, he also is excited that seniors will be able to walk across the stage and celebrate their accomplishments with their classmates and families instead of having a virtual event.
Because many DISD students are studying online, the schools have not been able to even hold in-person rehearsals for seniors and have had to explain the ceremony’s procedures virtually.
“It’s been difficult, but we’re very optimistic that we can have in-person graduation,” Ramirez said. “It’s a win for all of our families.”
Vianna Ho, a senior at Naaman Forest High School, was ecstatic when she learned that her class would have a “somewhat normal graduation.”
“It was very nerve wracking to not know if I’m actually going to graduate how we’ve always dreamt about,” Ho, 18, said.
After graduating, Ho will attend the University North Texas at Denton to study biology. She added that while the past year has been incredibly stressful because of the pandemic, it will make for an interesting story to tell her children some day.
“A lot of people can’t say that they graduated during a pandemic,” she said.
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