Summer spike in COVID-19 cases in Orange County leads to cancellation of in-person graduation ceremony at Buena Park’s football stadium

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Image used with permission from Johnathyn Yip.

Class of 2020's Johnathyn Yip and Elena Singh, wear their Sunny Hills cap and gowns at a senior graduation photoshoot at the Brea Dam on June 28. The Class of 2020 not only lost its senior traditions like prom, Grad Nite and paper toss, but last school year's seniors also never had a chance to walk down the aisle to pick up their diplomas during a commencement ceremony usually held at Fullerton Union High School's football stadium. An Aug. 5 makeup graduation at Buena Park High School's football stadium was canceled July 28 because of the continued increase in COVID-19 cases in Orange County.

Sydnee Tallant

Elise Ibara (Class of 2020) was looking forward to seeing as many of her former senior classmates again earlier this month.

With traditional senior events like prom in April and Grad Nite and the commencement ceremony itself in May wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic, Ibara held out hope that COVID-19 wouldn’t take away her final opportunity to bring closure to the four years she had spent at Sunny Hills. 

“I was looking forward to the possible graduation ceremony, and my parents would have come,” Ibara said. “I would have gotten a nice dress or thrown a party, but my other relatives would have not attended the graduation because they are older.”

But more than a week before the scheduled Aug. 5 live graduation ceremony at Buena Park High School stadium, Ibara and the 539 former Lancers received a July 28 email from Fullerton Joint Union High School District [FJUHSD] superintendent Scott Scambray that would be the death knell to the Class of 2020.

“We realize this is another disappointment during what has already been a very challenging year,¨ Scambray wrote in his email. “We are proud of the accomplishments of the Class of 2020 and know that adversity has made you stronger.”

The notification cited the continued spread of the coronavirus in Orange County as the cause of the cancellation and did not mention aiming for another attempt at holding a live ceremony during winter break in December or January.

“We wanted to have an opportunity for our seniors to walk across the stage in their cap and gown and receive their diploma,” principal Allen Whitten said. “Naively, at that time, we thought things would be back to normal or at least to the point of holding a modified in-person graduation.”

To compensate for the Class of 2020’s lost traditions, the FJUHSD spent $2,500 on a mobile jumbotron that featured graduates’ names on the screen placed around its six different school campuses in May.

Whitten said he spent around $2,500 to hire a professional videographer to put together a virtual commencement program for seniors and their families to watch on May 28. 

¨I still wore my cap and gown during the virtual video and took pictures,” Johnathyn Yip (Class of 2020) said. “I felt a little bit like a senior graduating then, so that was nice.”

Conner Chamness (Class of 2020) had better things to do May 28.

“I did not even watch the graduation video,” Chamness said.

Agriculture teachers Brian Kim and Jeremy Cates did their part to recognize seniors in the Future Farmers of America program by surprising 42 of their seniors with a home drive-through recognition featuring a float and loud music and congratulating them with stoles and awards. 

Still, some Class of 2020 students felt more needed to be done for them.

“I think it’s unfair that the graduation was just canceled because a lot of schools in the area had a drive in graduation or a parade,” Ibara said. “Other schools got some form of closure, while we got a YouTube video after four years of hard work.”

Others weren’t surprised by Scambray’s July 28 email.

“It was the right move to cancel,” said Yip, who originally planned on attending the graduation at Buena Park stadium. “In regards to safety, canceling was the best way to keep all the graduating seniors safe. Coronavirus is not dying down, and in consequence, graduation has to be canceled.”

Like Yip, Chamness was never optimistic about ever attending an in-person commencement ceremony.

“Honestly, since COVID-19 did not go away throughout summer, I figured the event would be dusted off,” said Chamness, who did not plan on attending the event because of the increasing COVID-19 threats. “Whether the ceremony happened or not, in the end, [it] doesn’t make any bit of a difference to me.”

With the district no longer involved in reuniting Ibara’s peers, some Class of 2020 alumni say it’s up to them to organize a live gathering in the future once the coronavirus pandemic dies down.

“It would be nice to have some sort of meetup with the senior class,” Ibara said. “But honestly, I think we are all over the whole graduation thing and just want to move forward in our lives.”

Yip agrees.

“It would be too difficult to create a ceremony [later in the year] where all the seniors could return,” he said. “What we can do is continue to move forward with our lives and take in what we have learned.”