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Maui seniors hope for alternative celebrations after being denied rite of passage from COVID-19

  • COURTESY PHOTOS
                                Bronson Espania, left, Nainoa Kulukulualani-Sales and Nadia Kaleikaumaka Apo Takayama.

    COURTESY PHOTOS

    Bronson Espania, left, Nainoa Kulukulualani-Sales and Nadia Kaleikaumaka Apo Takayama.

For 17-year-old Nainoa Kulukulualani-Sales, a chance to be honored as one of the first graduates of Lahainaluna’s new Hawaiian immersion program, Ke Kula Kaiapuni ‘o Lahainaluna, is now in jeopardy.

“This is history that cannot be remade,” he said. “It’s disappointing.”

Kulukulualani-Sales is among the thousands of Hawaii seniors whose plans to celebrate graduation have been delayed, changed or canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has temporarily halted large gatherings. School officials on Maui and throughout the state are assessing graduation plans and ceremonies, reviewing alternatives and deciding whether public events will even be possible by summer.

Kulukulualani-Sales’ mother, Lahela Kulukulualani, 38, said she’s proud of her son’s accomplishments and sympathizes with all graduates who are unable to enjoy this rite of passage.

“This is a huge milestone, and they can’t even have their graduation,” she said. “I kept telling them it’s better to be safe than sorry and there’s nothing we can do about it, but at the same time I’m like, this is history. … I think our kids are taking it better than we are.”

Kamehameha Schools Maui seniors Bronson Espania and Nadia Kaleikaumaka Apo Takayama, both 17, said they were upset upon learning their tradition-rich graduation ceremony would be canceled.

“When news of the traditional graduation ceremony cancellation first came out, I felt really devastated. It was something that my classmates and I had looked forward to for 13 years, and we were so excited that our day was getting closer,” Takayama said.

Espania said the situation initially left him “heartbroken.”

“This was to be the cherry on top of our high school experience,” he said. “I try to remain optimistic given these unfortunate circumstances.”

Kamehameha is working on graduation plans for its three campuses “that will follow appropriate protocols regarding large gatherings,” said Kevin Cockett, vice president of communications and chief communications officer, in a statement. “Our priority is the safety of our students, families, staff and our communities,” he said.

“We gathered feedback from our seniors to hear their ideas about possibly incorporating traditions such as receiving a kihei (cape) and singing class music. Details will be presented to our senior class and their families once the plans have been finalized.”

Both Espania and Takayama said they found some relief after hearing their school is working on an alternatives for them and their classmates.

“My class and I, although we faced a really rough time, are OK and well now because we know that our administration will honor us in another ceremony when this rough patch in history is over,” Takayama said.

With approximately 1,100 seniors at Maui County public schools, the state Department of Education announced April 15 that while traditional ceremonies are unlikely, alternative graduation plans are being discussed and reviewed, including small, invitation- only ceremonies as well as offering virtual commencements.

In the meantime, members of the class of 2020 have been posting photos and videos of themselves and classmates on social media dancing in cap and gowns, and there’s even been talk of a drive-thru commencement on Maui.

School officials at Seabury Hall, a private college preparatory school in Olinda, recently announced its commencement would be held July 25 on campus. Kaimana Brummel, the school’s director of advancement, said “every option is on the table,” but all plans are contingent on what health rules and guidelines will be in place at the time.

“We really want to send a signal clearly to our graduates that we are willing to work within the rules that are going to be in place in July to make this happen for them. Just that willingness means a lot to them because everything else has been put on hold or has been canceled for them,” she said.

And it’s not just commencement ceremonies being affected: Many schools and supporters plan elaborate Project Grad overnight parties to keep seniors safe on graduation night. Sherri Grimes, co-chairwoman for Project Grad at Baldwin High School, said organizers are brainstorming different ideas, including a dinner with music and different activities, as well as possibly delaying the event until next year.

“There will be a celebration — of course, not an overnight celebration, but it is necessary for us to do a celebration once everything opens up,” she said. “Something will happen. What will happen, we’re not sure.”

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