Burncoat High School senior Leslie Hernandez has been in National Honor Society since fifth grade. She’s also a member of the student council, World Language Honor Society and is graduating with a seal of bilaterally on her diploma.
She has dreamt of walking across the stage in her gown and cap, complete with two cords and a metal, for years.
But when Worcester Public Schools announced it would only be hosting virtual graduations due to the coronavirus pandemic, her dreams were crushed.
“I was so ready,” Hernandez said. “I was ready to say goodbye and really end with a bang on that day. And virtually, it’s just not the same. It really isn’t. It’s never going to be the same.”
That’s when she decided to start a petition on Change.org.
“We deserve the chance to walk across the stage,” the petition states. “With a traditional graduation, the 12+ years that seniors have been working for will feel officially validated and worth it.”
And she’s not the only senior to want her voice heard. Sophie Garcia of Springfield Central High School also started a Change.org petition to get her school district to change its virtual graduation plans.
“We get to have a graduation on a Facebook Live and that’s something that nobody wants to have,” the Garcia’s petition states. “At least if we can’t have a prom, give us the choice to wait.”
The petition worked.
On Friday, Springfield Public Schools announced Focus Springfield, the city’s cable access television station and website, will host virtual graduations, while high schools will also host in-person events with precautions in place for the coronavirus pandemic.
“It became clear that many students felt a sense of disappointment about not having a chance to experience some semblance of a traditional graduation,” Superintendent of Schools Daniel Warwick said.
It’s up to each high school to now make its own plans.
“The principals really wanted to do something special for their seniors from the very beginning and they are just thrilled to now have this opportunity,” he said.
The petition aimed at Worcester Public Schools is still gathering signatures. Originally its goal was 1,000 signatures, and as of Friday morning, it has received more than 1,100.
Maureen Binienda, superintendent of Worcester Public Schools, said the decision to hold virtual graduations was made “for the safety of students, families and staff.”
Hernandez said of course she understands the school knows they need to keep students safe during the pandemic, and that a traditional graduation is out of the question. But she wants them to think beyond virtual.
“I can’t possibly know everything that’s going on but I think I think they really should at least try,” she said.
Hernandez would like to see the graduation postponed or held at a stadium, even if it’s just with the students.
“I know that the Class of 2020 cares about being amongst their peers,” she said. “That’s what we really care about and crossing the stage or the field — anything.”
Other schools across Massachusetts, including Holyoke Public Schools, have postponed. Some schools like Chicopee High School and Chicopee Comprehensive High School are getting creative, driving up in decorated cars to the school’s football field and walking up to two separate podiums at Szot Park.
Western New England University has decided to host a virtual and in-person graduation.
As the first to graduate from college in her house, Emily Sarkisian said commencement was an important event.
“I think Western New England University is making the absolute best of an extremely difficult situation,” Sarkisian said. “They’re not only still having some type of celebration on the 16th, which was supposed to be our graduation date, but also plan on having a traditional ceremony when it is safe to do so.”
In addition to the petition, Hernandez also sent a letter to the superintendent.
“Some will be the first graduate of their family and others will be the last,” the letter states. “Everyone deserves a graduation.”
The school district hasn’t wavered in its virtual plans, but Hernandez isn’t giving up hope.
She says the petition and talking about it isn’t meant to be disrespectful or offensive in any way. Really, she said, they’re on the same side — trying to do what’s best for their students.
And she’s going to fight for her peers to have a voice.
“Please, please, with a cherry on top, please,” she said. “It’s not just a couple of students that want to look good on this day. It’s so many students, adults, people, everyone. Everyone deserves graduation.”
This fight, Hernandez thinks, is why she was put on student council.
“I’m going to fight for our students. I’m not going down without a fight on this particular topic,” she said. “This is worth the battle.”