Weslaco ISD hosted the Rio Grande Valley’s first virtual graduation Friday evening.
The ceremony had all the hallmarks of a traditional graduation: speeches from Weslaco High School graduates and members of the administration, a roll call of all the graduates and their achievements, and even shouts and congratulations from friends and family members in the audience, if you count comments on Facebook and YouTube.
There was a musical number and a slideshow of graduates from earlier in the year. Like every other American graduation, “Pomp and Circumstance” played for an almost unbearably long time.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit Texas when most Valley districts were sending their students home for spring break. Most of those students left for break and simply never went back. For high school seniors, that last week before spring break was the last time they’ll see many of their classmates and teachers. Some may never return to campus.
“We’d like to thank all of you for tuning in tonight to experience this once in a lifetime event that none of us saw coming. Wherever you are watching from, I would like you to take a moment and appreciate what you have with you on this special night, for we never realize when we are taking advantage of what life is granting us with,” Weslaco High School National Honor Society President Michael Aviles said during Friday’s ceremony. “Whether it may be our successful jobs, or being able to shake the hands of our friends or hug our family. Although tonight is ultimately unique and experimental for everyone, we are still going to push through, much like all the students who are part of the class of 2020. Never did we think that this would be how it ended for all of us, graduating through a screen through home.”
Like Thursday’s other speakers, Aviles’ address was hopeful and confident. One upside to virtual pandemic graduations is that every speech feels momentous and unprecedented. Another, as Salutatorian Raquel Moreno mentioned, is that you can watch the ceremony with your pets.
Despite the hope and positivity imparted by the graduates and the administration, and the professionalism of the video, a virtual graduation feels different than a traditional one. There’s no laughter after the jokes. Comments on Facebook don’t have the spirit and enthusiasm of shouts yelled in a stadium. Looking at a picture of your classmate isn’t the same as looking at your classmate.
Those differences are likely why Weslaco ISD, like most other Valley districts, is also planning on hosting a traditional graduation.
“Our commitment is to honor the Class of 2020 virtually and in person. We continue to plan in-person, traditional graduation experiences for our seniors at Texas National Bank Field at Bobby Lackey Stadium in June or if necessary in July. Our Board of Trustees and the entire Weslaco ISD family want to give our seniors the opportunity of walking the stage to receive their diplomas while maintaining the highest levels of safety measures for families, staff members, and students,” Superintendent Priscilla Canales wrote in a statement last week.
Pandemic regulations are being lifted at an odd time for Valley school districts. A month ago, graduations looked like they would be as much of a casualty of the pandemic as prom and spring sports, but loosening regulations have prompted many districts to make a last-ditch effort to save the last high school milestone for the class of 2020.
Many of the Valley’s largest school districts, including Edinburg, McAllen and Pharr-San Juan-Alamo, have announced plans to hold in-person graduations with a variety of social distancing guidelines in place. PSJA, for example, has planned a sort of drive-thru commencement ceremony, where the graduate and their guests will be quickly shuffled through the stadium after a nurse takes their temperature.
“The Graduate and 1-2 family members will be allowed to exit the vehicle,” PSJA’s graduation guidelines say. “The family members will be allowed to take pictures of the graduate as they walk across the stage and receive their diploma. They will both exit the stadium and return to their vehicle.”
Edinburg CISD will also be limiting guests to two. When he made the announcement, Interim Superintendent Gilbert Garza Jr. acknowledged that the plans were subject to changes based on the status of the pandemic.
“However, should COVID-19 cases increase in our area that require us to revert to more strict measures, we would have to reevaluate and possibly delay ceremonies,” he wrote.
‘DOESN’T SIT WELL’
The decision to hold in-person graduations hasn’t proved popular with all students. Lazaro Garza, a graduating senior at La Joya Palmview High, is supposed to graduate during an in-person ceremony Saturday, May 30. He was approached to speak at the graduation earlier this month.
“They called me and asked me, because I’m ranked number three at my high school, to give a speech,” he said. “I declined it because I was protesting it.”
Garza, who helps care for his at-risk grandfather and has asthma, says he’s not comfortable with the potential risk of attending graduation.
“It just doesn’t sit well,” he said.
According to an announcement on the district’s website, graduates’ guests will be limited to four and the ceremony will comply with recommended health and social distancing protocols.
Garza said he doesn’t feel that those measures are sufficient to protect the community. After declining to give an address, he sent a letter to the district’s administration asking them to postpone the ceremony and started a petition on change.org urging the same action that has about 200 signatures as of press time Saturday.
“I’m just asking for them to just postpone it. Not do it this month, wait and see how things turn out over the next few months, especially because we’re reopening the state and we don’t know if there’s going to be an increase in the numbers being sick,” he said.
Garza said he hasn’t received any feedback from the administration on his efforts to delay the ceremony and La Joya ISD Superintendent Gisela Saenz has yet to respond to a request for comment.
“I do think that the district is trying to make everyone happy, but at the end of the day, I don’t care if the students are happy or not, as long as they’re safe,” he said. “That’s the most important thing to me at the end of the day. A student will get over not having their graduation in person in time, but if they get sick or if their family members get sick and pass away, you can’t fix that. That’s permanent. That’s forever.”