In many ways, graduating from high school is like breaking free from the shackles of childhood.
Most graduates turn 18 years old within the year before they receive their diplomas, making them newly minted adults who can vote in elections, apply for loans and buy lottery tickets, among other newfound freedoms.
And by the time classes are dismissed and final exams are taken, high school seniors can smell the summer and the carefree attitude that comes with it. It’s a time to relax and reflect, a time to have fun and a time to start branching out from the homes and families that have helped to nurture them and prepare them for adulthood and the responsibilities that come with it.
Some will soon head off to college, and others will enter the workforce on a full-time basis.
For the class of 2020, which is graduating during a pandemic, the desire to escape their cocoons and fly free likely has been amplified. Many of these teenagers have spent most of the last two months cooped up in their homes along with the rest of us, because their campuses have been closed in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, the upper-respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.
They haven’t been able to socialize at lunch, attend prom and school sporting events, and they haven’t been able to take senior class trips. They haven’t been able to do a lot of the things that high school seniors would normally do.
That’s why the City of Houston’s plan for a region-wide graduation celebration in which students are encouraged to gather at their respective campuses at the same time on the same Friday night – while admirable in spirit – is akin to starting a fire that can spread as wildly as COVID-19.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner introduced the idea last week, saying the Mayor’s Office for Special Events would be coordinating a “first-of-its-kind citywide outdoor celebration” on the evening of June 5. Seniors from school districts across the region, including Houston ISD, are being asked to wear their caps and gowns and gather on their respective campuses or another designated location.
HISD, which was among the school districts to join Turner in making his announcement, said in a subsequent news release that the celebration might include students simultaneously singing a popular song, viewing pre-recorded messages by local, national and global celebrities, and taking group photos by drone.
Students who participate in the optional celebration will be required to wear masks, unless they are taking pictures, and social distancing protocols will be in place in an attempt to ensure students remain at least 6 feet apart from each other. Only students and faculty, and not family members and friends, are invited.
It all sounds great in theory, and it’s commendable to try to give the city’s seniors a memorable sendoff to cap what has been a bizarre, unsettling spring for many of them.
I also think it’s a disaster waiting to happen.
Will hundreds of excited, stir crazy teenagers be disciplined enough to follow social distancing instructions and stay apart from each other at a time when, deep down, they’ll probably want to hug and high five and catch up with friends they may not have seen in weeks? And if they do bend or break those social distancing rules, will anyone on their campuses be able to physically stop them?
The odds are unlikely. The chances are much better that some of these students, even the most well-behaved and best-intentioned, will get too close to each other and maybe even pass the virus to each other.
That may not be much of a concern to the seniors themselves, because many of them probably have strong immune systems and could fight off the disease without too much trouble. But what if they bring it home to their parents or grandparents who could be more susceptible to serious complications?
That’s something that should seriously be considered as city and school district employees finalize the details for this celebration, in which students will not receive diplomas. It is not being billed as a commencement or graduation ceremony, with HISD having announced a plan to hold virtual graduations later in June that will not require students to be in the same place at the same time.
The city’s idea for an in-person celebration sounds much more fun, but it’s also a lot riskier. And if you want to call me a scrooge or a Grinch or a buzzkill for suggesting the party should not go on, so be it.
I’m all for promoting a special moment for the thousands of high school seniors in the region, who have been treated unfairly by the pandemic and stripped of an experience that most adults cherish for years afterward. I just want them to stay safe, and I don’t want the Houston community to look back on this time with regret, because even the best-laid plans can go awry.
So my message to high school seniors and the parents and guardians who support them is to please proceed with caution. It’s OK to want to have up-close-and-personal fun with your friends, but there will plenty of time for that once the pandemic passes.
Most of your life remains ahead of you. But the choices you make now – and on the night of June 5 – can still carry consequences.