Editor’s note: Each year the Tribune-Herald covers one high school graduation. This year, the newspaper chose Hilo High School.
Horns echoed along Waianuenue Avenue Friday afternoon.
Cars, trucks — and an occasional tour van — filled with the family and friends of Hilo High School’s graduating seniors, slowly made their way to, and through, the school’s drive-through graduation ceremony.
COVID-19 has changed the way schools and the class of 2020 are celebrating graduations this year.
The state Department of Education in April announced that because of the ongoing pandemic, “alternative celebrations” would take the place of traditional high school commencement ceremonies.
For many schools in East Hawaii, that means drive-through and “virtual” programs for students, whose senior year was upended by the outbreak.
Cars began lining up Friday afternoon in the gymnasium parking lot. There, students and family who never left their vehicles, were greeted with lei and congratulations. Passing signs that read “OK, Zoomer,” and “Class of COVID-19,” they made their way toward the school.
Many of the vehicles were elaborately decorated: handmade signs and professionally-printed banners, balloons, flowers, lei and words of congratulations scrawled across the windows.
From the passenger seats, the graduates donned their caps and gowns. Some sported big smiles, others wore face masks.
In some cars, families were connecting to others over video chat, as others seemingly recorded the ceremony.
Teachers and other well-wishers lined the sidewalk along Waianuenue Avenue waving signs, pompoms and noisemakers. Students and teachers alike waved and shouted their excited hellos in passing.
Turning into the school parking lot, driving under an archway of blue and gold balloons, graduates were greeted by the traditional “Pomp and Circumstance” played over the loud speaker. Their names were called as they entered and drove through, meeting with more fanfare and congratulations from the school’s staff.
“You know, I wish we could do it the old traditional way, but because of this virus, we need to stay safe,” said Joy Kaupu, who was driving her grandson, Rorren-Hunter Cusick.
Kaupu said she didn’t know what to expect from the drive-through ceremony but said she was pleased and it was well organized.
Cusick said he was “kind of bummed” the graduation ceremony wasn’t traditional, but “I’d rather do it like this then somebody getting sick.”
“I feel like it’s one of a kind, it’s unique, but I do wish we had a chance to have our traditional graduation …,” said graduate Blossom Ahuna.
Along the roadway, horns blared as Hilo High health services teacher Karyn Tada held a sign, and waved, shouting enthusiastic greetings to the passing students.
Usually, at Hilo High graduations, teachers line up to congratulate students, she said, “but we can’t do that this year, so this is the next best thing, I guess.”
Principal Jasmine Urasaki said it was exciting to see graduation day arrive.
“You know, our staff worked so hard to put this on. I feel like it’s more work than a regular graduation,” she said with a laugh. “Just because (with) regular graduation, we’ve done it before. We have all the past years experience of putting it on and how it should be, but this is so new. This is brand new … It’s trying to figure out all the details of it, and trying to make it as festive as we can for our students.”
“For them, I think graduation from high school is definitely like a rite of passage that we wish they all could enjoy,” said Hilo-Waiakea Complex Area Superintendent Esther Kanehailua, who graduated from and began her own teaching career at Hilo High.
But not having a traditional commencement doesn’t take away from the work students have done to reach graduation, she said.
“I think no matter what, they need to be proud of that,” said Kanehailua. “Don’t let a pandemic color your view of what your future will be like. Just remind yourself you made it through it. You made the best of it through that, and because of that, I think they’re going to show us what a resilient class they are, and just how much change they can bring in such a positive way.”
Email Stephanie Salmons at firstname.lastname@example.org.