Santa Barbara’s Graduating Class of 2020: ‘They Are Resilient’

Local High Schools, Colleges Celebrate Seniors Amid Global Pandemic

Frequently referred to as the 2020 class of resilience, Santa Barbara high school and college graduates are celebrating the culmination of their academic careers amid a global pandemic — because even a health crisis isn’t enough to cancel graduation ceremonies.

“Every class deserves a special way to end their career in school,” said Santa Barbara High School Principal Elise Simmons. “This year has been really hard on [the students], but it has been really fun to think outside of the box and celebrate them.”

Due to COVID-19 concerns, all schools were ordered by the state and county public health departments to either postpone graduation ceremonies or rip out nearly all of the traditional elements — no tossing caps in the air, no sitting together as a class, and no hugging and family photo opportunities.

But each school found its own way to give graduates the milestone experience anyways. Santa Barbara High deployed a “drive-through senior salute,” a makeshift ceremony until the pandemic subsides enough that students can safely graduate traditionally in the school’s freshly remodeled Peabody Stadium.

“I feel so amazing right now,” said Jose Barrientos, the first senior to graduate from Santa Barbara High School at the drive-through ceremony. “I’m proud of myself for making it, but I really just want to make my mom proud.”

Barrientos rode in the car with his family through a balloon archway with “2020” at the top before getting out and walking to grab his “senior bundle” bag, which contained his diploma and momentos. Then he took a quick photo with Simmons, who stood six feet away, and got back into his family’s car to ride away. 

The students went through one at a time, beginning at 9 a.m. Monday morning through 5 p.m. that evening. The second and third students to graduate behind Barrientos were seniors Dario Alonso and Juan Aguilera. After high school, Alonso said he plans to attend Santa Barbara City College tuition-free through The Promise program, and Aguilera said he wanted to go straight into working in sound engineering.

A handful of teachers attended the ceremony to cheer on the students from the sidelines, too. Richard Johnson, a math teacher who has taught at the school since 1999, and Bill Dodson, a government and economics teacher who has taught at the school just as long, both acknowledged the unique challenges the class of 2020 overcame.

“They were robbed of their prom, their formal ceremony,” Dodson said. “This graduation is unique for many reasons, but what makes this so special really is that they are resilient.”

Santa Barbara High’s graduation ceremony differed from Dos Pueblos High School and San Marcos High School, both of which will hold “drive-in” rather than “drive-through” ceremonies on Wednesday.

“Because of our parking lot, we can have everyone together parked in one communal place and project [films and songs] on the side of the performing arts center,” said Dos Pueblos Principal Bill Woodard. “There will be live speeches and students still walk across the stage socially distanced. 

“We had a really hard year even before the pandemic,” he said. “The death of a student, a suicide, and two parent deaths. So, yeah, we are celebrating the heck out of this even with the restrictions.”

Woodard said the school hired a valet service to ensure that all of the cars are parked at least six feet apart. Similar to a drive-in movie, families are required to stay inside the car while students walk across the stage one at a time to receive their diplomas and go back inside their cars. 

The ceremony will take place from 7 to 10 p.m. so the three projectors and lights will be visible. He also said there will be special surprises for students during the speech portion of the ceremony, and that in lieu of the traditional cap toss, the graduates will hold sunflowers out the window.

At San Marcos, Principal Kip Glazer also opted to do a drive-in style graduation for students. “I chose not to allow graduates to exit their vehicles because we don’t have large enough facilities like other schools,” Glazer said. “Unless we can guarantee the safety of students and staff out there, it is best to stick to the original plan.”

But Glazer, who is in her first year as a principal, is still committed to honoring the seniors. The school will host a “stage walk” on June 8, 9, and 10 in the outdoor open center of the campus known as the Greek Theater. Graduates will be assigned a day and time slot to show up and make their official walk.

“I got an email from a student saying she’s a third-generation San Marcos graduate and that she is so grateful to have the experience of walking across the stage, too,” Glazer said. “There will be lots of emotions because that will mark the end of this interesting, amazing, incredible first year as principal.”

The district’s two alternative high schools, Alta Vista and La Cuesta, created a joint ceremony to honor the graduates. The schools normally hold personalized ceremonies in the Santa Barbara Courthouse Sunken Garden by having a teacher or mentor recognize each graduate. The pandemic didn’t stop this tradition, but it forced a few tweaks.

A videographer filmed students graduating and being recognized by their teachers over several days, and then compiled the videos into one ceremony that will be posted on social media Tuesday.

College Celebrations

Santa Barbara City College hosted a virtual commencement nearly a month ago on May 8, which named the more than 1,000 graduates and their majors before several speakers took to the podium, including Isabel Agundis, who received her degree in mechanical engineering and gave the commencement address. 

The ceremony was broadcasted on social media, where graduates could engage simultaneously. The link to the commencement is here.  

UCSB is planning a similar virtual ceremony for its combined 6,793 students, both undergraduate and graduate, for 9 a.m. Saturday, June 13. The university plans to hold an in-person ceremony when the pandemic subsides.

The virtual celebration also will feature a song for graduating students from famous musician and UCSB alumnus Jack Johnson. It will be broadcasted here on graduation day. 

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