COCHISE COUNTY — Local school leaders aim to provide modified but memorable graduation ceremonies for their graduating classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Herald Review spoke with multiple superintendents and principals from the county to discuss their plans for honoring the class of 2021. All have opted for an outdoor ceremony with some variations on the guidelines regarding masks and social distancing.

Bisbee High School Principal Darin Giltner said this year’s ceremony will be outdoors at Warren Ballpark on June 3, with masks required and 3-foot social distancing guidelines. The ceremony will not be open to the community to keep attendance down, and students will be allotted six to 10 tickets to distribute to guests.

“We’re looking at certainly having our graduates at least have their two ticked guests on the (baseball) field with them,” said Giltner. “That way we can control the volume and number of people, and probably cap it somewhere in the range of about 500 people.

“We’re excited that we’ve got, again, something different and unique ... We’re grateful that this year, we’ll be able to move out of the vehicles, have some seats on the ground for some better opportunities as far as photographs and things like that in terms of the distancing and whatnot. We’re excited that we’ve got, again, something different and unique.”

Benson Unified School District Superintendent Micah Mortensen said its graduation will be open to the public on May 21 on the school’s football field: masks will be optional and social distancing will be observed.

“This year’s graduation ceremony, we’re trying to make it as close to traditional as possible,” said Mortensen. “COVID has challenged us, and one of the big things that has challenged us is it’s constantly changing and change can be hard.”

Sierra Vista Unified School District Public Information Officer Valerie Weller said the graduation ceremony will take place at Loveless Stadium, Buena High School’s football field. The ceremony will span across May 26 and 27 with masks and social distancing required.

“We wanted our seniors to be able to have as normal of a graduation as possible,” said Weller in an email. “Splitting it into (two) ceremonies allowed us to have an in-person ceremony while keeping the health and safety of our students, teachers and community in mind. The students were allowed to choose which ceremony they would like to attend.”

SVUSD Superintendent Dr. Eric Holmes said at the April 6 board meeting each graduate will be allotted up to four tickets to give to guests.

Douglas Unified School District Superintendent Ana Samaniego said Douglas High School will have four sessions of students graduating on the school’s football field on May 28, masks and social distancing required, with approximately 80 students per session to limit the number of people on the field at a time.

“The only exception to the traditional aspect of things is that we are going to have smaller groups of graduates instead of the one big ceremony, which we feel at this point is still not safe to do,” said Samaniego. “We are going to split up the graduation ceremony into four sessions, and every session will have approximately a little over 80 kids or so that will be graduating. Every session will allow four guests per student to attend the ceremony.”

Willcox Unified School District Superintendent and Business Manager Kevin Davis said the ceremony on May 20 will be on the football field, with masks being optional for attendees and social distancing observed.

“We’ll have parents and families that can sit in the stands or on the grass,” said Davis. “We’ll have a limited number of tickets for them. We’ve opened up the football field and areas surrounding our stage for as many as want to attend and participate in the ceremony.

“We’re excited about that. This format was chosen because it kinda gets back to the tradition, it focuses on the students and the families, allowing them to celebrate that in a better way, maybe a more creative way, more public way than we had in the past. And I think we’re able to do that because of the infection rate and the risk of COVID not being as high as it has been in the past.”

Noting the pandemic’s influence over the past year, school leaders sent messages of gratitude to their students, families and communities for their efforts and patience.

Samaniego and DUSD sent a congratulatory message, honoring seniors’ efforts to graduate.

“It’s definitely been two challenging years,” said Samaniego. “This class saw what seniors went through last year, and I will tell you that my message to them is ‘anything is possible if you set your mind to it, despite any challenge, any adversity, you will face.’

“They are just starting as young adults, and they have a whole future ahead of them. I would like for them to always remember that Douglas High School was a place where they became academically prepared to face the next phase of their life ... Douglas will always be their home and once a Bulldog, always a Bulldog.”

Mortensen emphasized the opportunity graduates have to reflect on the lessons they have learned.

“This pandemic didn’t stop you from graduating. Certainly the path that you traveled on was a little bit different that you expected it to,” said Mortensen. “But your perseverance, your desire, your want, was there and you made it. The reality is that’s life for you, and you are going to have to deal with situations like this, some probably a lot tougher in your life, but now you know that tough things aren’t going to stand in your way and stop your dreams.

“I’m a big believer that you’ve got to find good in every situation. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges that we’re faced with in life and in our journeys is when something bad happens, how do you pull scraps of good out of it when the world around you seems like there is no good? So, I think there’s a lot of valuable opportunity in real life stuff that occurred this year, that if you look at it the right way, it’s going to make you tougher and stronger.”

Giltner and Davis express gratitude toward their seniors, parents, and their communities for their patience.

“This year has been incredibly challenging for our teachers, our families, but more so our students,” said Giltner. “You think about your high school experience, it’s tough enough to be a kid, so to speak, whether it’s these days or those days or any days. And I always try to keep our students focused on what really, truly matters and that is being grateful for opportunities, taking advantage of those opportunities when they present themselves, understanding that solutions are available ... And sometimes when doors close, others open. Sometimes you have to look for them though, and sometimes you have to look harder for them than others.”

Davis expressed similar thoughts.

“As the superintendent, I’m grateful and proud of those things that they have done this year,” he said. “It’s not a traditional year. It hasn’t been an easy year, they’ve been through a lot of things, both students, parents, families, communities, across the world. To accomplish the things that they’ve done this year with graduation, with sporting activities, with their academic endeavors, those types of things in a difficult climate, we’re excited and proud of that.

“Every year we have a theme for the year. When we started this year, we knew it would be difficult, so our theme was ‘resilience.’ And that’s the ability to bounce back, to be able to take a beating and get back up and continue on. They have most definitely done that. And not only them, but everyone. Our community has been great, and has supported the school district and the efforts we’ve made. So I think our community, our town, our school, our teachers, our staff, everybody has really shown resilience.”