Add another victim to the coronavirus pandemic in Hawaii: traditional public high school graduation ceremonies.
The state Department of Education announced Wednesday that high school commencement exercises, held each year in late May, would be replaced this year by “different models of celebrations.”
The move prompted by safety concerns about the COVID-19 epidemic will affect more than 11,000 high school seniors expected to graduate from public and charter high schools as part of the class of 2020.
Each school is expected to announce what its alternative ceremony will look like next week, the department said.
High school graduation is a big deal in Hawaii, with graduating seniors piled head-high with lei, families celebrating in parking lots and at graduation dinners.
State Department of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said officials considered delaying commencement for several months and having the seniors return to march in a traditional ceremony.
“But there just isn’t enough clarity about the impact of COVID-19 on continued closures,” Kishimoto told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Wednesday.
Kishimoto said school officials consulted with Gov. David Ige, the mayors and other state leaders before making the “emotional decision.”
“We’re heartbroken we have to deal with it that way but we are going to do something special for each high school,” she said.
The principals, she said, are looking into such things as using videoconferencing technology such as Webex or Zoom to conduct a coronavirus-safe ceremony.
In addition, some smaller schools may hold a drive-thru graduation as long as health and safety guidelines are observed, along with appropriate social distancing measures, she said.
Kishimoto said this year’s seniors deserve to be honored for achieving a milestone that marks the completion of 13 years of schooling.
“We’re excited we’re going to be able to do something for each high school,” she said. “None of us had the heart to say we’re going to cancel commencement.”
Kristen Brown, a senior at James Campbell High School in Ewa Beach, said she wasn’t relishing the internet ceremony rumored for the state’s largest high school. She described the plan as a disappointing end to a senior year painfully cut short, her prom dress unworn.
“It’s very sad,” she said. “Now I’m stuck at home. It’s not how I thought my senior year would have gone.”
The 18-year-old said a friend in Georgia told her that her graduation was postponed until the end of July, and Brown said she had hoped for a similar outcome for her commencement.
“I get to show my face on a screen but I’d rather walk across a stage,” she said.
Most private schools haven’t announced yet whether they are canceling or postponing their commencement ceremonies.
At Mid-Pacific Institute, a decision on the fate of the school’s May 23 graduation was expected around May 1.
But, according to the school’s website, a team of educators would be discussing with seniors “how to recreate a commencement experience that captures the spirit of Mid-Pacific while keeping our graduates and families safe.”
Mid-Pacific senior Madison Campos said she wasn’t optimistic that a traditional graduation would still work out, given the circumstances.
The 17-year-old said the prospect of capping her senior year without a traditional commencement ceremony is devastating.
“I still want that for myself,” she said. “It’s sad not to be able to wear that graduation gown and not being able to say goodbye to my friends.”
Adding to her misery is the fact that her parents own a lei shop, Hawaiian Lei Co. in Kakaako.
“Our company is hemorrhaging,” said Summer Campos, Madison’s mother.
The lei shop is part of a sizable economy linked to graduation season in Hawaii, including flower shops, party supplies, caterers and restaurants.
For Hawaiian Lei Co., graduation season accounts for about 70% of the company’s annual business and sustains it for most of the year.
The company normally employs 15 people but expands to 40 workers in the spring to meet the demand of graduations, Mother’s Day and parties.
“We’ve been in business for 16 years and this is the first time we’re wondering if we are even going to make it,” Summer Campos said.