Maria Gomez said as a first-generation student, her high school graduation is more than just an earned degree.
The soon-to-be graduate of Flowery Branch High School will be the first in her family to graduate from high school. She worried the COVID-19 pandemic would cancel her ceremony, as it had for the class of 2020, so when Hall County announced plans for an in-person graduation, she said she cried with relief.
“This is the first graduation my family will attend. I’m the first to do this, and it means so much,” Gomez said. “Knowing we’ll be able to celebrate with a sense of some normalcy right in our stadium brought me to tears.”
The Hall County School District announced Monday that graduation ceremonies will be held for all seven high schools at 7 p.m. May 14 in the high school stadiums. Each graduate will receive a maximum number of tickets depending on social distancing ability within the stadium. Ticket numbers are contingent on the community spread around the time of the ceremony, according to a news release from the district.
As East Hall High School 2020 graduate Kyle Matthews drove through his graduation ceremony in May, one thought came to mind — “This doesn’t feel like a celebration at all.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 graduates experienced non traditional ceremonies, the majority receiving their diplomas in the seat of a car or on a makeshift stage. Although Kyle Matthews didn’t attend a traditional graduation ceremony, he said he is grateful his sister Rebecca Matthews, a senior at East Hall, will.
“Sitting through my brother's drive-thru ceremony just felt odd. The district tried their best, but it didn’t feel normal,” Rebecca Matthews said. “That’s why I almost cried when I found out mine is set to be in-person and in our stadium.”
Rebecca Matthews and Gomez said the class of 2021 has mourned the death of two Flowery Branch students and adjusted to the pandemic in just one school year. Both said they are grateful to close out their high school career with a “normal” celebration to honor their struggles and accomplishments.
Graduation party planning has already begun for Carl Webb, father to a senior at Johnson High School. He said his son has experienced severe anxiety from the start of the pandemic and has struggled to maintain his focus in school.
Envisioning him walking across the stadium with his diploma in hand, Webb said his son has worked hard both mentally and academically. After a difficult school year for some students, Webb said the Hall County community deserves to celebrate its students “now more than ever.” Webb said he’s proud of the hundreds of seniors who have excelled despite the pandemic, and he’s looking forward to celebrating them in May.
“I’m happy the district realized a safe way to celebrate our students,” Webb said. “It’s important. It’s vital. They’ve been through a lot and truly deserve to be recognized.”