TOPPENISH — Toppenish High School’s graduation Friday had some of the hallmarks of a traditional graduation. There were speeches from graduating seniors and students in caps and gowns.

But instead of sitting in chairs on Bob Winters Field, the Class of 2020 sat in cars and trucks in the high school parking lot, and then drove up to an outdoor stage where the student got out wearing a mask, received their diploma, got back in the car and drove off. And instead of applause, speakers received a blaring of horns after their talks.

The drive-in graduation was an attempt to balance the social-distancing needs of the coronavirus pandemic while honoring seniors for 13 years of hard work.

“For some of our students, they are the first ones to graduate in their families,” Toppenish High Principal Cindy Nichols said. “It means a lot to their families (to see them graduate).”

Toppenish High School and Computer Academy Toppenish School graduated 257 students this year. Like other students across the country, Toppenish’s seniors had their school year cut short when schools were closed in March for the coronavirus pandemic.

Nichols and Toppenish School Superintendent John Cerna looked for a way to preserve as much of a traditional program as possible.

“Kids only get to graduate high school once in their lives,” Cerna said.

School officials figured out how much room the graduating class would take up in the parking lot in cars to maintain social distance. The district streamed the event live on Facebook for extended family and friends. The ceremony was optional, and police, security guards and school employees urged people to stay in their cars.{div}{div}Yakima County is in Phase 1 of the state’s reopening plans because of a high number of coronavirus cases. People aren’t supposed to gather or take part in social activities with others from outside their households. State Department of Health guidelines for schools only allow for in-person and drive-in graduations in Phase 2 and above.{/div}{/div}Other Yakima area school districts canceled plans for drive-up graduations with outdoor stages. The Yakima Health District has strongly discouraged any in-person ceremonies under Phase 1.

Cerna said he did not ask the Yakima Health District for permission to conduct the ceremony.

Students who spoke during the ceremony referenced the challenge that coronavirus played in their graduation.

“Look at us, in our cars. On graduation,” senior Micaela Cerna told her classmates. “A pandemic ruined our senior year, but here we are crossing the finish line. We are the ones who made it.”

Stephanie Quiñones-Sanchez, another senior, told her classmates that the past three months of pandemic closure was a roller-coaster of staying home and having abnormal sleep schedules. But she said the class was up to the challenge.

“We didn’t get to experience a traditional senior ending. But if there was a class that could endure this crazy ride, it would definitely be the class of 2020,” Stephanie said.

Referencing the turmoil in the country following the death of George Floyd after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck during an arrest, Micaela told her classmates to support the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We’re making history. I hope you are on the right side of it,” she said.

Reach Donald W. Meyers at or on Twitter: donaldwmeyers, or