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Would you like a diploma with that?

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Grants High School students graduate in cars

GRANTS - COVID-19 has halted some aspects of daily life, but the pandemic was not going to stop graduation at a western New Mexico High School.

Grants High School in Cibola County hosted a “Drive Up Graduation” on May 15, on the school’s grounds with social distancing measures.

A few weeks prior to graduation, the school’s leaders started to brainstorm ideas to make graduation happen.

“It evolved and changed a lot, we had lots of different plans, and we were having meetings everyday for a couple weeks trying to get [graduation] lined out [figured out],” Grants High School principal Lane Widner said as plans for the commencement remained fluid.

The school worked with the Public Education Department, law enforcement agencies, the school’s attorneys and other government entities to ensure everyone’s safety at graduation.

A stage was set up in front of the school with a jumbo-sized inflatable pirate - the school’s mascot.

School leaders on the stage maintained a six foot distance and used face coverings.

Vehicles filled with seniors and their families drove one-by-one to a drop-off area where the seniors stepped out of the vehicle, posed for photos and walked up steps onto the stage. Then they received a scroll, took a photo with the school’s principal, stepped off the stage for another photo opportunity and from there climbed back into their family’s vehicle.

“It was better than I could have imagined. It was really neat because each kid got the spotlight, each kid got to cross the stage. Their parents had a front row seat to watch their student graduate. That was really touching, because each kid got their moment and they got recognition, and it was really special that we got to do that for kids,” Widner said.

The event was limited to the graduates, their families and faculty volunteering to put on the commencement, but the event was livestreamed on the school’s social media channels.

Officers from the Grants Police Department helped with the flow of traffic and ensured the safety of all participating.

To maintain order, graduates and their families were separated alphabetically in four off-site parking lots. The school required all occupants of each family vehicle to use a seatbelt.

Families were encouraged to decorate their vehicles - including one family who held a “pool party” in the truck bed for their graduating son.

“I told him that he had to put on his cap and gown before he crossed the stage, but they had a good time. He was in a swimming pool,” Widner said.

“Some of our Native students had Native blankets and the kids wore their traditional dress. That was really neat to see, too. Some of the kids brought classic cars, and I’m a car guy, so seeing an old ‘63 Thunderbird Convertible is pretty cool.

“We have a good community, and our community rallied around our kids. It takes all of us to make it happen,” Widner said.

Toa Sanchez, 18, was one of 168 graduates who walked across the stage May 15. A student-athlete at the school, Sanchez called the commencement a once-in-a-lifetime event.

“Me and my family kind of laughed about it at first, but then realized it was a great thing to do for kids who were looking forward to it. We all dressed nice in the vehicle and had brought 4 masks just in case there was a stage to take photos,” he said.

“The thing I will remember about graduation was how most of the town was there to support, and to the ones who weren’t there, were supporting through the livestream that was held on a few platforms,” he added.

Sanchez will be attending New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, N.M. He will try to be a walk-on athlete for their football program. A walk-on athlete is one who attempts to make the team without being actively recruited.

Ericka Chavez, another graduating senior, said her classmates tried to convince class sponsor and GHS mathematics teacher Mark Lowther to hold an outside graduation before the pandemic.

Once plans changed to hold an outdoor drive-up commencement, Chavez and her family were excited about the idea.

“We decorated a truck, put a chair in the back, and got ready as preparation. I enjoyed it, it gave me closure and felt like a real graduation. I thought it was a good idea and it was nice to just get in and out,” Chavez said.

The 18-year-old graduate said having her family with her in the car while she got her diploma is what she will remember most about the commencement.

Chavez plans to attend college at Central New Mexico and then transfer to the University of New Mexico with the goal of graduating with honors.

The senior class was not able to participate in the prom originally scheduled for April. It was canceled because of the pandemic.

Only time will tell if social distancing measures can be eased, but Widner said he would like to see prom happen this summer if it makes sense.

“I would like to do a July 4 prom. In our community, we have some Fourth of July things that happen,” he said. “I would love to do a prom in conjunction with Fourth of July. Hopefully, we’re there at that time.”

By Dominic Aragon
Sun Correspondent