By Jenelyn Russo     6/23/2020

As schools across the country spent the spring navigating campus closures and transitioning to distance-learning platforms due to COVID-19, one of the most challenging issues facing administrators was how to handle graduation ceremonies for high school seniors. 

The limitations placed on large gatherings by state and local governments seemed to eliminate any option of providing a traditional ceremony. Some Orange County high schools opted for virtual events, pre-recorded videos or drive-thru parades as ways of celebrating the Class of 2020. 

But Mater Dei High School implemented a solution for their graduating class of nearly 500 Monarchs that allowed each student to walk across a stage and receive their diploma, live and in person, with their loved ones cheering them on. 

They achieved this by hosting a drive-in graduation. 

Harkening back to the legacy of Rev. Robert Schuller and his innovative drive-in ministry format, the Diocese of Orange Department of Catholic Schools developed guidelines allowing the high schools the option to safely offer an in-person drive-in graduation ceremony. 

After gathering feedback from their senior students and families as to what they wanted graduation to look like, a team of Mater Dei administrators and staff worked in conjunction with both the Diocese’s guidelines and recommendations from the Orange County Health Department to plan not one, but six separate graduation ceremonies honoring their graduating class. 

“Because of the pandemic, we couldn’t have prom…we couldn’t have senior awards…we couldn’t have a lot of the events that are traditions at Mater Dei,” said Mater Dei Assistant Principal of Student Services Miguel Gutierrez. “So we put our heads together. What can we give them back that’s been taken away?” 

The school kept with their original graduation date of May 30 to ensure attendance by as many of the seniors as possible. Each ceremony included 75-80 graduates, and the students were given the option of selecting which ceremony to attend. 

With their family members in cars parked in every other spot, and video screens appropriately placed for viewing, the seniors processed in to “Pomp and Circumstance” on a red carpet and took their places six feet apart in front the Meruelo Athletic Center, all while wearing masks with the MD logo. 

School nursing and staff were on site to check temperatures and help maintain social distancing, and hand sanitizer was provided to each student prior to receiving their diploma.  

Six valedictorian speakers were selected, one for each ceremony. Other speakers in the 35-minute event included Principal Frances Clare, President Rev. Steve Sallot and a video message from former President Patrick Murphy. The final video package that will be given to each family will also include messages from Dr. Erin Barisano and Bishop Vann. 

Each of the six ceremonies took on its own unique style, ranging from celebratory to serene. Although it wasn’t the school’s typical 4,000-person event, it was a solution that was generally well received by the Mater Dei seniors and their families. 

“We got a lot of positive feedback for doing something that was really memorable,” said Associate Director of Student Activities Jeanette Costa. “[The students] liked being able to graduate with their friends.” 

Costa said the school hopes to be able to organize a “first reunion” for the students during Christmas break. And while the logistics behind such a unique graduation event were complex, the administrators were thrilled to be able to provide the Class of 2020 with a formal sendoff. 

“Many people put countless hours into planning and organizing the ceremonies,” said Gutierrez. “Once we saw the kids walking across the stage, it was so worth it.”