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Sewanhaka CHSD holds socially distant graduations

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Though the graduation ceremonies were not what Sewanhaka Central High School District seniors had dreamed of for four years, the students still had the chance to cross a stage and receive their diplomas last Saturday.

The seniors walked onto their respective schools’ football fields to “Pomp and Circumstance,” then sat with their parents six feet from other families while wearing masks. Then they crossed a stage as district officials read their names and handed them their diplomas.

“Today is certainly a day filled with conflicting emotions,” H. Frank Carey Principal Christopher Fiore told the 259 seniors. “Sadness comes first — I’m heartbroken that the seniors could not finish their time at Carey by experiencing the joys of being a senior in the springtime, I’m crushed by the fact that we cannot be together as a graduating class, and I am dismayed by the fact that time and space will now separate us.”

But, Fiore added, “elation and bliss need to rise above the sadness.”

Students had not been in the school buildings since the coronavirus pandemic began in March, and district officials originally planned to hold individual graduation ceremonies at the end of June. By the end of May, however, Superintendent James Grossane announced that the ceremonies would be postponed to the end of July so the seniors could graduate together.

“Our students have advocated how important it is for them to graduate with their classmates,” Grossane said at the time, adding that he hoped restrictions would loosen enough by July 25 “so that we can provide the best possible experience for our students and families.”

About a week later, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that outdoor ceremonies would be permitted. 

Since then, school officials had worked to make the graduations special for Sewanhaka’s seniors. The Parent Teacher Student Association and H. Frank Carey Dads’ Club helped organize and decorate the ceremonies, and the Gardeners Market in West Hempstead donated a graduation display.

“They did an amazing job decorating, keeping the families socially distanced and giving the children a day they will remember,” said Tara Roessler, whose daughter, Brianna, graduated from Carey on Saturday. “I have to say, Mr. Fiore has done a wonderful job showing our seniors his love and support throughout this entire year.”

Michele Scarantino, mother of Frank Scarantino, added that the families “were welcomed and made to feel special” during this unprecedented time, and Lisa Scardamaglia said, “The events helped to bring joy.”

Tarnia Burrell also said the experience at Sewanhaka High School "was a great one," and Elmont Memorial High School, which had a 100 percent graduation rate this year, held five separate ceremonies for its more than 270 graduates. Senior Janiya Deshommes said it wasn’t the graduation ceremony she imagined. “However, she noted, “I’m grateful I was able to walk across the stage and receive my diploma.”

The ceremonies also gave students and their families the chance to see their loved ones and friends, according to Elizabeth Jones, whose daughter, Sydney, graduated in the top 10 percent of Elmont graduates on Saturday, noting, “The experience was a bittersweet one for our family, as my husband [and her father], Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Lt. Robert Jones, died in the line of duty on June 15, 2019.”

“So not having him there to witness her walk across the stage was very emotional,” Elizabeth wrote in an email to the Herald “However, due to the Covid pandemic, life has taken on an entirely new meaning.”

Parents said the ceremonies were different from the ones held in past years, “but,” Jose Peguero said, “the school administration and staff did a remarkable job with the arrangements to follow the protocols to keep everyone safe and make our children feel special for their accomplishments.”

Colleen Henry also said her family was “very grateful to have [a ceremony] and not a virtual graduation.” But she said her daughter, Daniella, missed the “personal touch” of being able to say goodbye to her teachers and classmates, which “made it incomplete.”

Grisselle Gonzalez said she understood school officials tried to make up for everything that her son, Ricardo Fortuna, missed, “but my heart did not understand.”

“My son missed out on everything that a high-schooler works for for four years,” she noted. “When I ask how he feels, he says he is OK . . . but it’s not all right. He just doesn’t know what he missed out on.”

Gonzalez added that she “felt like my heart was going to explode” when she watched the ceremony. “It was a happy occasion,” she said, “and a very sad day.”