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Keaau High School holds in-person graduation

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Parents and guardians watch graduates walk into the commencement ceremony at Keaau High School on Friday.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Graduates walk through the rain during the Keaau High School commencement ceremony on Friday.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Hazel Faith Gani looks up before going to her seat during graduation at Keaau High School on Friday.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Graduates listen to opening speeches during the Keaau High School commencement ceremony on Friday.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald A Keaau High School graduate waves to the crowd while walking through the rain during graduation on Friday.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Dazllyn-Rae Mello looks up from under her umbrella before walking to her seat during her graduation ceremony from Keaau High School on Friday.

Editor’s Note: Each year the Tribune-Herald features one high school graduation. This year is Keaau High School.

Nothing could dampen the spirits of Keaau High School’s graduating seniors, not even the rain that began to fall as the students marched toward the school’s stadium Friday afternoon.

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The class of 2021 had assembled in two groups, milling about the school’s gymnasium and cafeteria before commencement began.

Donning red caps and gowns, as well as face masks, the students talked, laughed and prepped prior the ceremony.

Keaau High School is one of the few schools offering an in-person graduation ceremony this spring.

After a turbulent year amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, students, many of whom returned to campus in January for in-person instruction, had asked for an in-person graduation — and the school delivered.

But all four years of their high school careers have been marked by upheaval of some kind: the 2018 eruption of Kilauea volcano began at the end of their freshmen year followed later that summer by a number of hurricanes and tropical storms that hit the island at the start of their sophomore year.

Campuses shut down to in-person instruction in the final quarter of their junior year as the pandemic began, the impacts of which continued into this academic year.

“It’s been really challenging,” senior Jancy Rapoza, 17, said of the school year. “We seemed to get through it and I’m so thankful that we actually get to have a real graduation.”

Rapoza said she was “super excited” to have an in-person commencement.

“I’ve been dreaming of a graduation since I was in elementary school,” she said. “It’s meant so much to me to even have a graduation.”

“Even though the weather’s not the best, I’m just really grateful because I know this opportunity is pretty special given everything in the pandemic,” said senior Sklyer Padamada.

Although the class has already weathered through a number of difficulties, Padamada said there’s more to come.

“We’ve only lived 18 years of our lives,” he said. “I already know college is going to be pretty challenging, but I’m just glad we were able to make it through it all. I think it kind of shows how … strong we are.”

Winnie Mears said she’s sad to be leaving, but happy to graduate.

“This year has been epic,” she said. “… We were able to endure through this pandemic, but also have this ceremony. We’re just blessed to have it because not a lot of schools get to.”

Mears said the class of 2021 is “full of survivors.”

“Anybody that’s in this class, I think they’re survivors.”

Classmate Tiani Nacionales agreed.

“During the pandemic, many kids had to go to work with their parents, they were forced to do something else other than school and they still had to do their school work. I know it’s hard for them.”

Friends Kyllor Strasser and Joshua Sampaia also were grateful to have a graduation ceremony.

“We’re still here,” Strasser said of the last four years. “I mean it’s an unique experience. I get to tell it to my grandkids … But honestly I kind of forgot about all that (happened previously) because life goes on, I guess.”

Principal Dean Cevallos said the in-person ceremony was so important to the class because they have not had “any sort of year where there hasn’t been some kind of trouble.

“… These kids are ready and they want to do this graduation,” he said. “That’s the one thing they asked for, so that’s going to be the one thing we make sure they get.”

Cevallos said that he was called a “pretty crazy principal” when the school opened up to students in January.

“But it was because we opened, it was because we took the chance, that we are able now to be able to do the celebration for them, to have a graduation,” he said. “We finally got to at least let them have half a year of seniorhood on the campus, and then we’re going to be able to give them an in-person ceremony to finalize their 13 years. I think it’s what we owe them and what they deserve.”

Cevallos said he believes there is no group more prepared to handle anything life throws at them — and come out stronger — than this group of students.

“I know they’re destined to become a force in this world and (there is) nobody better to put up with changes and difficulties than this group,” he said. “They’ve had to do it the past four years of high school.”

Ka‘u-Keaau-Pahoa Complex Area Superintendent Chad Keone Farias said having an in-person graduation “feels amazing.”

“Our students did their part, parents did their part and our community did their part,” he said. “And because of that, we get to be in person. … Just looking at the smiles on their face, I know it means the world. They’ve worked hard.”

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Keaau High had 260 students in its graduating class, 230 of whom participated in commencement.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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