How to Celebrate Your Graduate During a Pandemic

Bay Area graduates David and Claire show off their signs.

It’s graduation season, but from college down to preschool, students and their families are facing the challenge of how to celebrate these milestones without the usual pomp and circumstance.


With large gatherings canceled throughout the Bay Area and beyond due to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place restrictions, and with little hope of a return to normal in the near future, schools and parents are stepping up with creative approaches to make graduations special, though certainly different than what was anticipated.


Like much of life these days, many graduation celebrations are becoming virtual, with schools creating films, slideshows and other online media to celebrate their graduates and their awards and accomplishments. St. Leo the Great in San Jose provided its eighth-graders with graduation gowns and green screens so their parents could film them walking in front of a virtual altar as graduates. Footage will be compiled and shown as part of a live Zoom graduation.


In some areas, groups are being allowed to gather in cars at drive-in theaters and other parking lots for social-distancing celebrations. The San Mateo County Event Center is offering drive-in graduation packages in which commencement speeches can be broadcast on big screens with FM signals broadcast to cars. There will also be an opportunity for graduates to individually walk across a stage to receive their diploma and have a photo taken. The county health order limits such events to three hours and 200 cars and does not allow anyone to leave their car except to collect a diploma or use a restroom. Face masks must be worn if car windows are open.


Contra Costa is similarly allowing outdoor events of up to 200 vehicles parked six feet apart and offering guidance for in-person diploma pick-ups, though it “strongly encourage(s) organizers to consider ‘virtual’ graduations that can be held online.” Alameda County is also allowing people to gather in cars for graduations and has offered guidance for small or staggered graduation events or diploma pickups. 


Other schools, including Rheem Elementary in Moraga, are staging car parades in which graduates and their families can drive by teachers and principals holding congratulatory signs. But such celebrations may not allowed everywhere. Santa Clara County, for instance, had banned car parades but announced it would allow them beginning May 22.


Lawn signs are cropping up throughout the Bay Area and elsewhere to give graduates a boost. In Alameda, parents of Alameda High School seniors raised funds in less than two days to deliver a personalized sign to every graduate, and other island high schools followed suit. District graduates of different grade levels are also being celebrated on radio broadcasts from Alameda’s Encinal High School radio station.


Some schools, such as Palo Alto’s Greene Middle School, are using funds collected for graduation ceremonies and parties to instead make gift packages for their graduates.


But some graduates are still longing ­– and holding out hope – for the kind of graduation they always expected. At the urging of students, Palo Alto’s two high schools are postponing graduation ceremonies and hoping to hold them in December. Palo Alto students aren’t alone: reports that there are more than 500 online petitions on the site from students and parents across the country, including 53 in California, asking schools to postpone graduations until in-person ceremonies are deemed safe, rather than replace them with virtual ones.


Burlingame High School is taking a hybrid “now and later” approach, with an upcoming senior slideshow and video, plus a graduation that “may be a virtual ceremony but will still include speeches, student recognition and students being named as they cross a virtual stage,” according to a letter from administrators, who said they are also committed to having an in-person celebration for the Class of 2020 when it is safe to do so.


Perhaps one positive for today’s graduates is that they can all say that a former U.S. president gave their commencement address. Barack Obama gave a primetime graduation speech on Sat., May 16 at 8 p.m., on the major TV networks and other streaming channels. The hourlong special, called “Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020,” was hosted by the education advocacy group XQ Institute, The LeBron James Family Foundation and The Entertainment Industry Foundation and featured other celebrities and luminaries including James and activist Malala Yousafzai.


Obama and his wife Michelle will give another address June 6 at 12 p.m. in a YouTube event, “Dear Class of 2020,” which also includes former Secretary of State and Stanford professor Condoleezza Rice and Lady Gaga. 


And beginning May 15, IHeartRadio will be offering a podcast of commencement speeches from a wide range of well-known speakers including former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Apple CEO Tim Cook, philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates and entertainers John Legend and Jimmy Fallon. Speeches will also be featured on-air on the IHeartRadio stations.


For those looking to replace a celebratory graduation party with a special gift, there are several options to gather wishes from friends and family who can’t be together in person. AwesomeBox from San Francisco’s Muse Factory allows participants to share a photo and thought for the recipient, with packages starting at $19 for 10 cards. Tribute lets users gather and compile video clips from friends and family. There’s a free DIY service as well as more expensive options.


Pandemic or no, a scrapbook of your graduate’s years and accomplishments is always a treasured gift, and quilts made from special T-shirts saved over the years make a sweet send-off. And for those who want an extra reminder of graduation during pandemic (like we could ever forget it), Class of 2020 quarantine gag gifts abound online, many of them featuring masks and toilet paper along with mortarboards.


Janine DeFao is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.




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