High school graduates throughout the Yakima Valley will get to celebrate with in-person ceremonies this graduation season — a welcome turn of events following a challenging and atypical conclusion to a K-12 career.

While students spent senior year learning virtually from home or in a hybrid learning model in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, they won’t have to stream their commencement ceremonies from home, as many did last year.

Instead, valedictorian speeches, cap tosses and a walk across a stage to receive a diploma cover are part of many local school districts’ plans. While masks, social distancing and limited spectator capacities will be in place, local school and health officials say that’s a small price to pay for the in-person recognition.

Graduating amid COVID-19

When commencement season arrived last year, Yakima County was in Phase 1 of the state’s reopening plan. It was a hotspot for COVID-19 transmission, with the highest rate of COVID-19 cases per capita on the West Coast in early May.

Many schools tentatively planned in person, distanced ceremonies with students walking across stage, or parades through town. But state guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus ultimately resulted in them being called off. Some schools instead created celebratory videos for students to livestream, or sent staff to drop off diplomas at students’ doors one-by-one, cheering them on from outside their homes.

It was a disappointing and at times frustrating experience for graduates and their families, many of whom felt robbed by the pandemic of a key milestone in life.

This year, there’s better news for graduating seniors.

Yakima County is in Phase 3 of the state’s coronavirus reopening plan, and events like graduation ceremonies are allowed with safety precautions. Late last month, the state relaxed capacity limits, allowing ceremonies to further reflect tradition.

Indoor graduation capacity increased to 1,000 people including students, spectators and staff, said Ryan Ibach, the Yakima Health District’s chief operating officer. Previous state guidelines allowed 50% of location capacity or 400 people — whichever was less — unless square footage of the space was above 100,000. Events held outdoors can have up to 9,000 people, he said, and “pods” of 100 square feet can host groups of six.

Creative planning

Celebrations for seniors are underway.

In Toppenish, the 2021 graduating class walked the halls of Lincoln Elementary a final time Wednesday as the younger students cheered them on — a tradition that wasn’t possible last year.

Graduating seniors in West Valley gathered together in person a final time to hear commencement speeches and musical performances.

In Sunnyside, students received awards and scholarships earlier this week and were able to enjoy a senior breakfast, a parade through elementary schools and rehearsal before graduation day, as is tradition.

This weekend, the celebrations will continue.

Today, Stanton Academy and Yakima Online will each have indoor commencement ceremonies with family present, followed by Davis and Eisenhower high schools’ ceremonies on Monday and Tuesday, respectively, at the district’s Zaepfel Stadium.

While two larger schools haven’t had an outdoor celebration in years — ceremonies usually are at the Yakima Valley SunDome — hosting the ceremonies on the school field allows for “several exciting additions to graduation ... we couldn’t do in the SunDome,” said Superintendent Trevor Greene. This year’s festivities will feature fireworks and a laser show, for example.

“My heart still aches for the students last year who didn’t have a ceremony,” he said. Being able to celebrate the class of 2021, which he said “was shortchanged even more than the class last year” was a thrill.

“For many of us, it’s going to be the ... event that is most like pre-pandemic circumstances, in that we haven’t had sporting events even or club events or drama events or music events where we’ve been able to have a full audience or full community participation,” said Greene. “That we can come together around all of our graduating seniors in such a way that brings the community together will be amazing for our students, but also for our families and our community.”

‘Proud of our kids’

In Selah, graduating seniors will be seated in the bleachers of the high school football field on June 12, while audience members will sit on the school football field in groups of six in 10-by-10 square foot boxes. From there, they’ll be able to see a professional livestream of the ceremony for an up-close view, said high school Principal Colton Monti. While students were originally limited to having six guests, new state rules allowed the school to distribute an additional 200 tickets in overflow seating. Monti said about 75 students requested an additional two tickets, and the high school was able to honor those requests.

“I’m proud of our kids, truly,” he said. Earlier this week, he was impressed by seniors’ presentations for their culminating projects. “Listening to their stories about how challenging the last 16 months were and how a lot of them have overcome different things and grown a lot by it, I’m just really inspired by our kids and really proud to have been able to work with them for so many years.”

He said he was thrilled to be able to honor them in a ceremony that reflected tradition.

Grandview High School Principal Kim Casey echoed his sentiment.

“Families have waited 13 years for their students to walk across the stage … and (get) the diploma. It’s a rite of passage, and when you don’t get that rite of passage, things seem kind of discombobulated,” she said. “I think the community and people are really ready.”

In Grandview, students will be on the school field for commencement with audience members in the bleachers. Students will walk onto the field and across the stage single file, rather than in groups.

The state is allowing schools to have vaccinated and non-vaccinated seating sections in an effort to increase capacity. Grandview is one of the districts taking this approach, Casey said. Each student is allotted seven tickets — three for unvaccinated guests and four for vaccinated guests, with less distancing among those vaccinated.

Sunnyside similarly offered seating in a vaccinated section in an attempt to increase capacity for the event. Some audience members will be in bleachers, while others will be on the football field in seating behind the graduating seniors, facing a stage.

Kevin Chase, the superintendent of Educational Service District 105, which supports schools in the region, said while this could sound alarming to some people, the vaccinated section is something audience members can volunteer to be a part of at participating schools to fit more people into stadiums. Those who don’t wish to do so can still sit in audiences, he said.

In Toppenish, those who can’t sit in the audience will be able to watch a livestream of the graduation ceremony from the school parking lot, said district Superintendent John Cerna.

In West Valley, students will walk across the stage in small groups during pre-scheduled mini-commencement ceremonies. With this approach, the groups of about 10 students each will be able to have up to 20 guests per student cheering them on, said district communications director Nicholas Sybouts.

Getting closure

While graduation ceremonies throughout the Valley still won’t look exactly like a traditional graduation, it’s a big step forward, school officials say.

Last year in Grandview, a parent-led caravan through town replaced a normal procession, Casey said.

“After last year, having had no graduation, everyone is happy to have any kind of graduation this year,” she said.

Ceremonies will be more traditional than not this year, said Chase of ESD 105.

“Here’s what I think is significant: We’re going to get some closure on a school year that’s been rough on a lot of students,” he said. “They actually get to have some normalcy, some closure, and actually get to celebrate. That’s been a long time coming.”

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