More than 4,500 seniors graduated from the Elk Grove Unified School District’s 14 high schools on May 24-26.
Graduation ceremonies were held in-person for the first time since 2019. The COVID-19 situation caused district officials to cancel last year’s ceremonies at Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center and instead had students pick up their diplomas at school parking lots in a drive-thru fashion.
Elk Grove Unified’s Class of 2021 was given the option of either staying home to watch a “virtual” or online graduation ceremony, or attending an in-person ceremony.
Most of the high schools held their graduations at the football stadiums of either Cosumnes Oaks or Monterey Trail high schools in Elk Grove. Graduates were asked to wear masks and they were seated three feet apart on the fields. In order to keep the crowds low, many schools had their ceremonies broken up into sessions. Franklin High School alone had three sessions since they had more than 660 graduates.
The Citizen attended the Laguna Creek and Monterey Trail ceremonies on May 24.
“I’m just so happy we were able to do this for them,” Elk Grove Unified’s superintendent, Christopher Hoffman told the Citizen at Laguna Creek High School’s graduation. “It was a year unlike anything else and they showed grace and perseverance, and to do this celebration for them is just great.”
He also observed an old behavior while he watched school officials hand diplomas to graduates.
“(The students) still get nervous walking across the stage – some things never change,” Hoffman said.
The Class of 2021 walked across the stage after spending half of their junior year and most of their senior year at home during the pandemic. They took online classes and they were unable to attend in-person classes until this April when district and Sacramento County public health officials deemed it safe enough for them to return. Those who chose to return to their campuses could only attend a few hours a day, four days a week. The Elk Grove school board later this month will decide whether to reopen schools for full-time, in-person learning five days a week.
“It was a wild year with COVID, but we just focused and made it through,” Monterey Trail High School graduate Antonio Forward told the Citizen.
Monterey Trail High graduate Drishti Singh in her graduation speech reflected on her classmates’ experiences during uncertain times.
“(The year) 2020 was not easy, it was hard and frustrating, and sometimes we felt like screaming into our pillows,” she said. “But now we are stronger and hopefully a lot more grateful.”
Olivia Halseth, Laguna Creek High’s valedictorian who earned a cumulative GPA of 4.71, mentioned that her classmates were unable to enjoy high school traditions such as rallies, Friday night football games, and homecoming dances. In her speech, she said that many of her classmates found ways to connect with each other, despite having to study in isolation at home. Halseth quoted Helen Keller, “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.”
She went on to give advice to her fellow graduates.
“I challenge you to keep being resilient,” Halseth said. “Things aren’t always going to go as planned, but you proved that you are strong so keep moving forward.”
Old graduation customs were practiced at the ceremonies – graduates were instructed to turn their tassels after they all received their diplomas, and students performed music or dances on prerecorded videos that were displayed on large screens. Monterey Trail High’s ceremony ended with a video of the school’s drumline playing funky rhythms to fuel the party atmosphere.
There was also the tradition of teachers congratulating former students and taking photographs with them before they set off for college or the workforce.
Eric Johnson, a science teacher at Laguna Creek High, paused from his interview to ask a graduate to keep in contact with him.
“I genuinely love this group of kids,” he said. “They may not have all finished with great grades, but as individuals, I love these kids. I’m going to miss them and I’m going to start all over next year with freshmen.”
Johnson is now planning to start the next school year with classes at Laguna Creek High’s new facility that will house their Green Energy Technology Academy program.
Bao Tran, a Monterey Trail High teacher who works with English language learners, made sure that she had her photos taken with half a dozen former students.
“They came here with no English (skills) and now they’re graduating from college,” she said.
Elk Grove City Council Member Darren Suen saw his son, Conner graduate from Laguna Creek High.
“I’m so proud of him for persevering through all of this,” Darren said. “I have high hopes for them to bring back their skillsets and contribute to the community.”
Conner credited the support of his family and friends for his success.
“It was hard dealing with COVID and being away on an online school, but congratulations to everyone who pushed through with me,” he said.