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How Paradise High’s Class of 2020 Got Its Graduation

After arriving on Paradise High School’s Om Wraith field for the school’s first ever drive-in graduation ceremony, Brian Enright, a senior, takes in the scene. Photo: Anne Daugherty

The students and parents pushed and prodded over 10 weeks for an exception to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s shelter-in-place order.

June 15, 2020

PARADISE, Calif. — When Gov. Gavin Newsom announced plans to fight the coronavirus by closing down the entire state, including schools, the seniors at Paradise High School began peppering local officials with one insistent question: What does this mean for graduation?

The senior class of Paradise High, 142 strong, is a unique bunch, survivors of back-to-back crises that tested bonds of friendship, family and community in extreme ways. As juniors, most of them lost homes in the Camp Fire, which razed much of this town. As seniors, their final months of school were spent sheltering in place, cut off from one another and the usual rites of passage they had hoped would help restore those bonds.

All they wanted was a proper graduation, a final glorious expression of teenage solidarity, a moment to collectively acknowledge all that had been endured and overcome. “We’ve been trying to get back on track ever since the fire, and Covid-19 threw us back off,” one senior, Caitlyn Leckbee, said.

And so the Paradise class of 2020 and their parents pushed and prodded over the next 10 weeks for an exception to Mr. Newsom’s shelter-in-place and social-distancing guidelines that looked certain to derail not just their graduation dreams, but also a celebration that many here viewed as important to the restoration of a scarred community that saw its population plummet to roughly 4,000 from 27,000 before the fire.

Wendy Limbaugh, whose daughter Malorie was a senior, immediately wrote the governor to explain why this graduation was so critical. “They drove through flames to safety and several were trapped in parking lots, separated from families, and forced to flee the fire on foot,” she wrote. “Then Covid-19 cut their year short and separated them from their support groups and teachers.”

Students and parents lobbied local representatives; enlisted the support of the Paradise school superintendent, Tom Taylor; and began studying the fine print of ever-changing Covid-19 public health directives to find a loophole that would allow them to hold a graduation ceremony in the traditional space of the Paradise High football field.

Paradise High School senior Anna Hawkins gathers her thoughts before walking up to receive her diploma at Om Wraith field in Paradise, Calif. Photo: Anne Daugherty.

“Covid-19 is a worldwide issue, and we know that,” Mr. Taylor said. But he was determined to give the students a proper send-off — “even if we have to do it in hazmat suits.”

The school district began making elaborate plans to stage a socially distanced ceremony made up of small groups of graduates, families and friends gathered on the football field by appointment.

For the town, the quest for a live graduation ceremony quickly took on larger significance. The Camp Fire, in November 2018, killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 19,000 structures in the area. “A big part of the town’s recovery process is its residents connecting with their community and their neighbors,” Colette Curtis, assistant to the town manager, said. The coronavirus made that nearly impossible.

While the physical rebuilding had continued — they recently completed the 189th rebuilt house — the town’s emotional resurrection had stalled. “The isolation is rebirthing all the tragedy and loss the town experienced,” Karen Crook, president of the local Lions Club, said.

On May 10, on the other side of Butte County, in the town of Palermo, an event totally disconnected from the high school would have a portentous impact on graduation. The Palermo Bible Family Church held a service in defiance of the governor’s order. A day later, one of the churchgoers tested positive for Covid-19.

It was the worst possible timing. The Paradise seniors and their parents were still negotiating with the county for a closer approximation of the traditional Paradise graduation ceremony. Specifically, they were fighting to have a socially distanced student procession across the football field, a tradition revered by generations of graduates.

But then came Palermo.

Days later, officials from the Butte County Public Health Department told Paradise school officials that graduations would be subject to the same rules as religious services, with no exceptions. That meant graduation would have to be a “drive-in only service.” There would be no procession, and no seating for family and friends. It was not what anybody in town had asked for, but it would follow the rules laid down by Butte County: one student, one car, six feet apart.

At 8:45 a.m. on the first Monday in June, the first set of 10 seniors drove onto the track circling the football field and parked in front of the empty bleachers — five cars each on either side of the 50 yard line. Encircling the field were yard signs with the names and photos of the students. They wore caps and gowns and the green and yellow Paradise face masks they had been given before being checked in.

Each car had one student, which they could share with anyone from their household. Each student was also allowed to invite one more car of well-wishers, parked just behind them.

“I know this ceremony looks a little bit different,” Michael Ervin, the principal, said from a dais at midfield. “But I know you can overcome all obstacles — you have, over and over, the past couple of years.’’

Jillian Damon, the assistant principal, called the students’ names, two at a time. Sometimes the pairs were football buddies, or high school sweethearts, or best friends. From either side of the 50, a student emerged from a car and walked down the track to midfield, where the two students faced each other 10 feet apart and coordinated jubilant “air-fives.”

Called to the stage one at a time, seniors picked up their diploma from a table — actually, not their diplomas but an empty folder that would be exchanged for the real thing at a later drive-through procession. Then they posed for the requisite photo and basked in raucous honking and cheers from the car-bound crowd. “I was hoping it wouldn’t be too quiet,’’ Bradley Norton, one of the graduates, said later. “The horns, I think, lightened the mood a little bit.”

Overwhelmed at seeing their teachers in person for the first time in months, some graduates sneaked quick hugs with them on the walk back to their cars. When the first group of 10 was done, the graduates took a slow victory lap in their cars as masked school staff members cheered them on with cowbells.

Thirty minutes later, the next group of students drove onto the field. The ceremony would be repeated 13 times. It took two days to pull it off. But the 142 students of Paradise High School’s class of 2020 got their graduation ceremony.

Anne Daugherty is a student at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism. The New York Times is collaborating with the school on coverage of the coronavirus in California.


Production Staff & Crew

Anne Daugherty

Anne Daugherty ( 2021 )

Reporter, photographer