‘It was so special’: Colorado high schools host creative graduations during the pandemic

Telluride High School seniors took gondolas to pick up their diplomas on May 21, 2020. (Ryan Bonneau/VisitTelluride)

From drive-in to drive-through, and from ski gondolas to car parades, high schools across Colorado are finding unique and creative ways to honor this year’s graduating seniors.

Graduation comes at a tenuous time in the public battle to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Many people are pent up after weeks of tight restrictions, and families are eager to celebrate the achievements of students whose senior years were disrupted. 

Perceptions of risk vary around the state. Some Colorado school districts won variances from a state ban on gatherings of 10 or more people to hold in-person ceremonies. Others plan to forge ahead with in-person ceremonies without state approval.

Still others have postponed ceremonies originally set for May until July or August in the hopes that the coronavirus pandemic will be less of a public health threat by then. And some schools are opting for the safest route by holding virtual ceremonies.

But even schools whose ceremonies will take place on Zoom have found tangible ways to honor their seniors with lawn signs, downtown banners, and car parades.

Legacy High School graduate Ryen Hilton waves to teachers while holding her dog, Koda, during a senior appreciation car parade. (Andy Cross / The Denver Post)

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City held a full day of graduation activities centered around a diploma drive-through. Families decorated their cars and teachers lined both sides of the parking lot entrance, cheering and waving to students as they passed by.

Adams City High School senior Ruben Jimenez, 18, said that even though the celebration wasn’t traditional, it still meant a lot to his family.

“They were actually really excited and emotional,” Jimenez said. “My dad comes from Mexico and for him, seeing me graduate was really emotional. For my mom also because at a young age she lost her mother. So for her to be here for me, it was just really emotional.”

Jimenez said the joy was enough to make the family forget about the current pandemic.

“I feel like in the moment we just totally spaced it,” Jimenez said.

Graduating seniors in Adams 14 picked up their diplomas in a drive-through ceremony. (Courtesy Adams 14)

Adams 14 also rented a plane that flew over Commerce City with a banner congratulating the graduates, and the district aired a virtual program that included speeches from leaders and teachers. The day ended with the tradition of firing a cannon at the close of graduation.

The district wants to try to do an in-person ceremony in August, but students said that after their drive-through ceremonies, they’re OK if that doesn’t pan out.

Most Denver high schools are holding virtual graduations. Among the exceptions: Noel Community Arts School in the far northeast, which had an in-person ceremony this week. 

Families stayed in their cars in a parking lot. Graduates sat in folding chairs between the painted lines, wearing matching face masks and white caps and gowns. One by one, the principal called them up to walk across a stage. Instead of clapping, proud families honked their horns.

Buena Vista High School in western Colorado is taking advantage of a local attraction, one of the last of its kind in the state: the Comanche Drive-In Theatre. The drive-in ceremony will start at 8:30 p.m. Saturday after a car parade through town, according to the Chaffee County Times. In a letter to families, the high school principal included this crucial reminder: Use the restroom prior to arriving because the theater’s facilities will be closed.

Up in the mountains, Telluride High School senior Grace Ringstad and her family arrived at the gondola that connects Telluride to the town of Mountain Village just before 1:30 p.m. Thursday. Teachers with pom poms cheered as she and her family boarded a gondola headed for one of the state’s most scenic overlooks, where her principal and her diploma were waiting.

“I have three older brothers who all graduated from Telluride High School and they were like, ‘This is way better than any ceremony,’” said Ringstad, 18. “It was so special.”

Grace Ringstad and her older brother Tor ride the Telluride gondola to pick up her diploma. (Courtesy Grace Ringstad)

Telluride High Principal Sara Kimble said school officials landed on the idea of using the public gondola after health officials denied their request to hold an in-person outdoor ceremony because it would have brought too many people together in the open. Doing so would only be OK if each family was in their own enclosed space, like a car, health officials told them.

“Then we thought, ‘Oh my gosh, the gondola is an enclosed space,’” Kimble said.

Each graduate was assigned a time to show up at the gondola with their family. Over the course of six hours, each graduate rode to the top, elbow-bumped with the principal, and plucked their diploma from a table to avoid a person-to-person handoff. Students were ushered to a scenic overlook for photos before boarding the gondola for the trip down.

“We did 66 individual ceremonies,” Kimble said. “It couldn’t have turned out better.”

Legacy High School in Broomfield may have set a record for the longest graduation this year. Over 35 hours and four days, each of the school’s 530 graduating seniors came to a near-empty auditorium with their parents for an abbreviated but personal ceremony.

In three-minute increments while “Pomp and Circumstance” played, each graduate walked across the stage and Principal Sara Marx handed them their diploma. 

“We wanted to figure out a way to give them their diplomas — and not just handing it through a car window,” Marx said. “It just didn’t feel like enough to us.”

While the mini-ceremonies lacked the traditional trappings of graduation — no in-person speeches or cheers or the throwing of caps — Marx said it was special to spend a few minutes reminiscing with each senior and their family. Such moments are not usually possible in a school as large as theirs, and Marx said it got emotional.

“When people are crying, I’m like, ‘We did a good thing,’” she said.

Legacy High School social studies teacher Scott Semple shows his support for a graduate during a senior appreciation car parade. (Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Schools in El Paso County in southern Colorado are among those trying for larger in-person graduations in June. Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment granted permission for the county’s schools to host in-person ceremonies, with strict rules. 

Families will have to watch from home through a livestream. Each student will have to wear a mask, sign a behavior agreement, stay 6 feet away from others during the ceremony, and try to stay away from vulnerable people for two weeks afterward. 

The department is also in the middle of reviewing a request from Elbert County, but after the state asked for more information from local officials, the county decided to tell its school districts to proceed with an in-person graduation — even without state approval. 

In a written statement, the Colorado Department of Public Health said it was “disappointed with Elbert County’s decision to defy the public health order.”

In El Paso, each district is now in the process of submitting detailed plans for final approval. The county’s largest district, Colorado Springs District 11, is planning multiple in-person graduation ceremonies for its approximately 1,600 graduating seniors next month. 

Devra Ashby, communications director for the district, said discussions for in-person celebrations began after the Air Force Academy held an early graduation in April.

“We had this prime example set in our own backyard,” Ashby said. “We started hearing from our community, ‘Why can’t we do the same?’”

While the restrictive rules may be hard for some families, a community survey found that the possibility of celebrating in-person is important to them, she said.

“It has really made our seniors hopeful,” Ashby said.

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