PICTURED: Santa Paula High School sign honoring the Class of 2020.

The tradition of celebrating graduation has been a given for seniors as long as there have been high schools. The ceremony follows a familiar formula: Students in cap and gown are seated together before a stage, speeches are given, graduates walk to the sounds of “Pomp and Circumstance” to receive their diplomas and a handshake, all before a crowd of proud onlookers. Tassels are turned. Mortar boards are tossed. There’s hugging and high fives and, often, tears. 

As restrictions related to the pandemic were extended, principals across the county realized that standard ceremonies could not take place. Many looked to community input to develop events that adhered to physical distancing rules while still honoring the Class of 2020.

“This is the time to bring everyone together” 

Santa Paula High School’s graduation is a community-wide event. When Principal Elizabeth Garcia realized a traditional ceremony wasn’t going to happen, she felt it personally.  

“I think my reaction was ‘wow’. It was emotional,” said Garcia. “This is the time to bring everyone together and celebrate the tradition of graduation. I was initially just hopeful that we would be able to do something in our stadium, but then reality set in and we began planning for the alternative.” Organizers looked at what other high schools near and far were doing, and strove for an event that was “unique and fun.” 

After considering the requirements for car processions issued by Ventura County Public Health and conferring with senior officers, the plan became an individual diploma presentation ceremony for the school’s 339 seniors. “It will be a drive-through, all seniors will come through.” They are allowed to have up to two cars per family. “Only the graduate is allowed to exit the vehicle, and have their photo taken with a beautiful backdrop of our center court.” 

There will be flower decorations provided, as in previous years, by local florist Yamaguchi’s. 

Garcia, board members and teachers will be present (abiding by physical distancing rules). Faculty will be dressed in their faculty robes.

Another Santa Paula tradition is the (optional) blessing of the graduates at a local church. This year the event will take place on Zoom. Each graduate who signs on will receive a “blessing and a good word.” 

— Kimberly Rivers

“An entirely new way of honoring our students” 

“Initially there was a lot of shock, and disappointment that we weren’t going to have a traditional graduation, prom or grad night for these seniors,” said Richard Urias, principal of Oxnard High School (OHS). “We’ve had the challenge of creating an entirely new way of honoring our students while maintaining all the public health guidelines.” 

Urias held an online meeting with 12 senior parents, “to get their input on what is important to them in regard to celebrating their child’s graduation.” He also met with seniors in OHS’ student government “to discuss what is important to them.” 

OHS coordinated with the Oxnard Police Department and the Oxnard Police Explorers will be helping during the day. “We have a plan that has been vetted by all the important parties. It is going to be a really successful day at Oxnard High.” 

The graduation event will take place on June 13 and includes a “serpentine route” in the parking lot of the school’s campus. “Like the lines at Disneyland,” the line of cars will switch back and forth up to the stage. Graduates will exit the car to receive their diploma cover and have photos taken. The school will be providing photographs and video at no cost. 

“The design allows the students to pass by the stage four times before they actually get out and graduate. They get to see their friends graduate — this builds up the feeling. The most important thing from the students and parents was a culminating ‘feeling.’ We think our ceremony will provide an emotional experience. I’m hopeful it will give them some closure.”

Urias is expecting about 70 percent of OHS’ 600 seniors to participate, but “we are ready to accommodate 100 percent.” 

“It has gone pretty smoothly. People thought initially that everything would be online. The fact that we have an event that graduates can physically participate in, I’m happy about that,” Urias continued. He noted the community’s involvement as well. 

“We’ve had a lot of adults step up to deliver yard signs to students who have no transportation, and to deliver caps and gowns. A silver lining with all the caring adults that have stepped up at our school and community who are willing to chip in to make this as special as possible. It is a neat thing to see staff and community activate in that way.” 

— Kimberly Rivers


“The class that made history”

Ventura Unified School District worked with staff, teachers, administrators and parents to plan its alternative ceremonies. “We also put out a high school senior survey to see what their thoughts were early on,” said Marieanne Quiroz, communications coordinator.

“We are close to having a permit signed for a live ceremony at City Hall for our seniors on June 13 and 14,” she explained. “This will require our families to stay in the car while our graduates’ names are read, they receive their diploma and have their photo taken in front of City Hall. We are collaborating with CAPS Media, who will be videotaping it all, and we will provide a link after the event.”

Involving City Hall in the ceremonies is a first for Ventura, and Quiroz hopes that it will help provide “a unique experience” for graduates. 

A virtual graduation is also being produced for each school (Buena, El Camino, Foothill Technology, Pacific and Ventura high schools) with speakers, musical performances and highlights of each student. It will be made available online on June 20. In addition, alumni associations are working with their respective schools to help plan a one-year reunion in summer 2021 — hopefully a chance for students to interact in person, sign yearbooks and maybe even have a senior barbecue and dance.

Said Quiroz, “We hope that this Class of 2020, the class that made history, sees that graduation at City Hall, the first for the city of Ventura, is as special as they are and appreciate this tassel-turning moment.”

— Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Conejo’s carefully coordinated ceremonies

Conejo Valley Unified School District (CVUSD), which includes Newbury Park, Thousand Oaks, Westlake, and Conejo Valley high schools as well as Century Academy, has created virtual celebrations viewable online. It has also worked with the Thousand Oaks Police Department to develop carefully coordinated live ceremonies, taking place June 8-12, for each campus.

Students will travel by car with their families to campus at an assigned time, arriving first at a stop where they will receive a custom mask and gloves. Vehicles will then proceed to a location designated for students to exit their cars and line up (social distancing will be maintained in line) while the family vehicle is directed to a separate location for viewing the ceremony. After walking up to receive their diplomas and have photos taken, the graduates will proceed along the route to reunite with their families and leave campus. Families will be required to stay in their vehicles at all times. Police will help direct traffic.

The district may adjust plans if guidelines related to large gatherings change. Additionally, “If and when conditions permit, we will explore the possibility of bringing our seniors back for their Senior Picnic or another similar social event,” CVUSD stated on its school websites.

— Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Celebratory parades in Camarillo

In Camarillo, Frontier (June 12) and Rancho Campana (June 15) high schools will honor their graduates with a drive-through graduation, whereby students and their families will follow a route through campus (cars may be decorated), creating a celebratory parade where (socially distanced) faculty and staff will line the route to cheer the graduates on. Frontier seniors may exit their vehicles briefly at a designated location for photos; Rancho Campana students can have photos taken June 8-9 on a decorated stage at the school’s performing arts center. Adolfo Camarillo High School, which already celebrated its seniors June 2-3, was one of the few local schools to have an indoor event. Students were assigned a time at which they could walk the stage in the gym with their families in attendance. Masks were required, social distancing was enforced, and only one student and family was allowed in the gym at once. All three Camarillo schools also offered virtual graduation programs.

— Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Nordhoff drive-through

Similar to other districts, Nordhoff High School, the only public high school in Ojai, has created an event that will allow “graduates the opportunity to wear their caps and gowns and individually walk across the stage to receive their diploma with their family watching from inside a car,” said Dave Monson, principal of Nordhoff. Students select an appointment time between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Friday, June 12.   

— Kimberly Rivers