The Graduating Class of 2020: Coronavirus Style

By Elpidio R. Estioko

I just can’t imagine how graduating students of class 2020 are feeling and celebrating their graduation from high school or college during the COVID-19 pandemic! It must be one-of-a-kind considering that it’s virtual, unlike the traditional pompous face-to-face rites we usually do!

When the coronavirus attacked late last year, public and private schools were forced to create distance-learning classes to continue the rest of the semester and subsequently graduating their students virtually. Classroom instruction should not stop… it must go on! That was the effect of the pandemic which we can’t avoid and have to face, especially by school administrators and the graduates themselves, including the parents who are very supportive of their children.

My daughter from Hawaii graduated from college and texted me; “Dad, I graduated! I belong to the graduating class of 2020!” I said, “Well, let’s celebrate!” which we did, but it’s not as elaborate as we had when her younger sibling graduated from San Jose State University two years ago.

Since the COVID-19 impacted the school system so heavily, school administrators have to be creative and innovative in holding their graduation ceremonies resulting to practical alternatives to give seniors the graduation they deserve.

In the light of the serious situation, Hawaii’s public schools resorted to alternative graduation ceremonies as the Hawaii State Department of Education (HIDOE) announced last week that traditional ceremonies at public and charter schools would be replaced with alternative celebrations for the class of 2020 due to safety concerns and social distancing guidance. 

Deputy Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami said: “Determining the appropriate ways to honor our graduating class of 2020 has been one of the top priorities for my leadership team over the past several weeks. While we are disappointed that traditional commencement ceremonies cannot be held due to COVID-19, the thoughtful innovation and care with which our schools and community partners have come together has been inspirational. Mahalo to all of the individuals and organizations who are continuing to work behind the scenes to make the 2020 graduation ceremonies truly special.” 

Of the about 50 high schools that graduated about 8,000 seniors, all graduation rights were virtual, streamed and aired in selected media outlets. It also included drive-diploma cover pick-up and a pre-recorded video graduation. These are graduation rites never thought of before.

Public school graduates watched online graduation ceremonies from home instead of walking across the stage, a situation we didn’t even imagine happening… at all! 

I was told that seniors at Campbell High School—Hawaii’s largest public school—picked up their caps and gowns last week as the first step toward their “virtual” graduation ceremony in the era of COVID-19.

My fraternity brother and president of the University of the Philippines Alumni Association of Hawaii Jun Gappe said: “It’s just unfortunate that due to social-distancing requirements, the traditional lei-giving that makes graduations so memorable in Hawaii didn’t happen this year. Instead, graduates and their families participated in online celebrations and watched graduation rites from home and waited for their names to be read as their photo were displayed on-screen. We hope we can have it back next year.”

My three children, two of whom are now residing on Oahu and members of a halau (Polynesian dance group) for the past five years, said “leis don’t have to be just flowers; they can also be highly creative, depending partly on the family culture and the personalities of the creators.” I can just imagine every graduate covered with flower leis, candy leis, food leis, money leis, balloon leis and more jumping with jubilation. This year, it didn’t happen!

Rosebella Martinez, president of the Urdanetanians in Hawaii, who boldly distributed essential goods and food for homeless residents of Hawaii during the pandemic commended the school administrators with their innovative graduation approaches for seniors and gave them a graduation they deserve.

Along with online ceremonies, many schools scheduled drive-by pickups so students and a subset of household members can collect their diplomas at a separate time.

Brooke Carroll, Vice President of Advancement, Hawaii Pacific University addressed the Spring Class of 2020: “We know how significant this milestone is to you, your families and friends. Hawai’i Pacific University is deeply committed to honoring your hard work and accomplishments. We began this journey together just a few years ago when you joined our international learning community, and although you’re not able to walk this spring, you are no less a proud alum of HPU. We celebrate your achievements, we congratulate you on your successful journey through this stage in your life, and we promise to be here for your next steps.”

Even with the pandemic, the Hawaiian-style graduation exhibits the island spirit of “Ohana,” which translates to “family.” It’s not face-to-face but we still celebrate with our family at home with more vision to move forward.

Others tried to come up with alternatives to graduation. I was informed that Beth Obermeyer, who works with high school students at New Foundation church in Goodyear, held driveway graduations for seniors. Using a megaphone, church staff surprised students by showing up on their driveway and holding impromptu celebrations, 6 feet apart. 

Congratulations to the Class of 2020 graduates!

ELPIDIO R. ESTIOKO was a veteran journalist in the Philippines and a multi-awarded journalist here in the US. For feedback and comments, please email the author at

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