Briauna Leonard graduated from high school at home wearing pajamas and sitting at her kitchen table beside her cat, Mr. Pickles, watching the salutatory address that she recorded a week earlier in an almost empty auditorium.
“It was a little heartbreaking, honestly, to work your way up for 12 years, and you look forward to all these things — senior prom and graduation, senior week, and the senior trip,” says Leonard, a new graduate of Groves High School in Savannah, Georgia. “I just kind of had to look at it like, at least I was getting a graduation, and I made it to the end.”
During the virtual ceremony on May 13, which was live streamed on YouTube and broadcast on TV, Principal Timothy Cox congratulated graduates on reaching that milestone in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted their final weeks of high school.
“You went from working in a classroom to working 100 percent online,” he said. “You went from dreams of having a standard graduation to a virtual one. You went from working part-time, probably just to pay your bills, to some of you working full-time to help support your families. And you did all this while taking classes.”
“The world changed,” Cox said. “And you changed with it.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered thousands of schools across the country and canceled large group gatherings, including graduations. It has thrust new responsibilities onto teens during a pivotal time in their lives and made their futures more uncertain. Now, instead of packing auditoriums, gymnasiums and football fields with graduates and their families, schools have shifted to virtual ceremonies or socially distant celebrations at drive-in movie theaters, school parking lots or the Daytona International Speedway. Some schools have delayed graduations or scheduled individual ceremonies at which a graduate can walk across a stage and receive their diploma, with just immediate family in attendance.
Ella Potee, a senior at Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield, Mass., will graduate at the drive-in movie theater where she once watched Toy Story, Jurassic Park and last year’s live-action Lion King. In a few weeks, she will deliver a valedictorian speech to her 40 classmates as they sit in their cars, listening to her over the radio, watching her up on a screen made for movies.
“I grew up going to movies there with my family. I had dates there with boyfriends,” says Potee, 18. “It’s just this place in your town where everyone convenes in the summer. And to have it be the place where we’re all ending our senior year is going to be really exciting.”
At the graduation on June 4, “Pomp and Circumstance” will play as seniors drive to assigned parking spots at the Northfield Drive-In. Speakers will approach a podium one at a time. When graduates’ names are called, they’ll get out of their cars and walk up to retrieve their diploma off a table, without shaking anyone’s hand. When the ceremony ends, there will be a fireworks show, and graduates can stick around to watch a movie of their choice.
“This is making lemonade out of lemons. It’s dancing in the rain. It’s celebrating our successes, even with what the world is facing now,” Principal Kevin Burke says, adding that the ceremony is critical to recognizing the struggles many students have gone through to earn their diplomas. “I think a celebration is really important.”