‘We Should Celebrate’: In-Person Graduations Return to New York

After one of the most eventful school years they’ll ever experience, the class of 2021 celebrated their accomplishments in person and in style.

Credit…Amir Hamja for The New York Times

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By Precious Fondren

In the Bronx, a valedictorian at one high school stepped onto the stage to deliver her speech only months after her grandmother died of Covid-19. In Brooklyn, a high school hosted its celebration at Socceroof, an artificial turf field in Sunset Park that soon became crowded with students and family members. And at an elementary school in the Bronx, a group of pre-kindergarteners sang “This Little Light of Mine” as onlookers took countless photos.

As New York reopens after more than a year of coronavirus restrictions, students across the city in the last few weeks have celebrated the end of a school year unlike any other. In-person graduation ceremonies have returned for the first time since 2019, marking what students and teachers hope will be the beginning of a return to normalcy.

“We always want to celebrate our children,” said Shana Hewitt, director of early childhood education at Sheltering Arms Harriet Tubman Early Childhood Education Center in the Bronx. “We always want to celebrate our families, so why not? It’s the end of the year. Especially this year, it’s been particularly victorious with all that we’ve overcome. We should celebrate.”

Since last March, the class of 2021 has had to navigate a rocky road to graduation. Switching to remote learning as the city became the epicenter of the virus in the United States presented substantial challenges, as some students did not have access to reliable internet. A return to classrooms last fall was delayed twice because of public opposition and significant planning challenges. Yet the majority of students — about 600,000 — stayed home.

No official graduations took place last year, but some schools did creative things like drive-by ceremonies, car parades and diploma drop-offs.

Next fall all students will return to classrooms full time, with no remote learning option available, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in May.

But before the nation’s largest school district returns fully to in-person instruction, schools are taking the time to celebrate their departing students with ceremonies big and small.

Members of the graduating class of Bronxdale High School were like local celebrities as they stepped onto the lavishly decorated football field for their graduation ceremony.

Friends and family behaved like paparazzi, waving and instructing the masked graduates to look their way so they could take the perfect picture. Parents, siblings and other supporters made loud declarations, sometimes with a bullhorn, saying things like “That’s my baby!” and “We’re so proud of you!” as the graduates made their way to their seats.

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