Lufkin High School seniors and parents banded together Friday morning in front of the Lufkin ISD Administration Building to protest the hybrid graduation plans announced by the school on May 7.

Around 15 students and parents gathered with handmade signs and determination. Senior Maria Molina said ever since she hit high school, she wanted to walk the stage.

“Then this year came and we couldn’t do it anymore, and I was mad,” Maria said. “We deserve it. After all our hard work for 12 years, we deserve it.”

Maria’s mother, Veronica Molina, said she has seen how hard the kids have worked, and she agreed that they deserve to walk the stage at a proper graduation. She said she was proud to see the students voicing their opinion in peaceful protest.

Senior Abby Mason organized the protest.

“Our superintendent, Lynn Torres, promised us a graduation,” Abby said. “She said, ‘My promise to seniors is we are having a graduation. I don’t know when, but we are having a graduation. Our kids deserve to put on their cap and gown and walk across the stage at our stadium. We’re going to do that even if it’s August 1.’”

The quote comes from a statement made by Torres at a meeting of the Lufkin ISD Board of Trustees on March 30.

In response to the protest, Torres said that everyone is disappointed the district is not able to have things as normal as possible right now.

“When I made a statement over a month and a half ago that I wanted a traditional graduation, the world was under the impression that this pandemic event would pass by and we would return to normal lives by June,” Torres said. “Unfortunately, that is not our reality. I am now planning for a potential return to school in August with restraints that I never thought would be seen in schools. Desks six feet apart, no visitors to the campuses, no use of the cafeteria, lunch in the classrooms, potentially half of the students in the building at one time, maybe no sports, distance learning, and all while wearing masks and gloves.”

In a Facebook post announcing the plans to peacefully protest, Abby said she and other LHS seniors see other schools in Angelina County making plans for a traditional graduation ceremony with limitations while LISD is giving students 15 minutes, three graduates at a time, and six family members each, inside the auditorium.

“Now I’ve done my research before I shared any of my posts,” Abby said in the post. “Our stadium holds 11,000 people. After reading the TEA guidelines, we could skip a row and still add 6 feet between each family, and it averages to five family members per student. Our football field is also big enough to hold us seniors while still being 6 feet apart.”

She said if staff had to screen individuals for symptoms, they could give families a ticket and an appointment time to reduce the lines. If it would be too hard to do all 450 students, they would be fine with doing the graduation in two groups.

With the criteria set by the governor, a ceremony in the stadium would not look anything like the district’s traditional ceremony, Torres said. With 460 graduates, one ceremony could not cover the requirements, and it would have to be divided to maybe two guests per graduate, she said.

“After walking the stage, the student would be required to meet their family and immediately leave the stadium. Not the scenario that people picture as their traditional graduation with all of their cheering family present in the stands,” she said. “No collective hat toss, no school song, and no talking and interacting with friends. Yes, we have a large capacity in our stadium, but not when the criteria for social distancing is applied, thereby reducing it to only a third of its capacity. Troublesome to say the least. Then we as school officials have to plan to curtail any gathering in the parking lot afterwards. Not ideal and very difficult to enforce, yet required, if we are going to protect our community.”

After the hybrid graduation plan was announced, students and parents called and emailed Lufkin ISD with no response, Abby said.

That is when she decided to go public.

“(Graduation) is kind of like a stepping stone into adulthood. We’re saying goodbye to our childhood and we’re all going off on our different ways. It’s like our final goodbye,” Abby said. “I get most adults are saying there’s bigger things that are going to happen in our life, and we totally understand that. But right now in our 18 years of life, this is the biggest thing that’s happened is having our graduation taken away.”

She said she hopes that the protest will garner acknowledgement from the school board and superintendent and for them to reconsider the graduation plans, even if that means putting it off until the summer.

“I know it’s going to be hard, considering all the stuff with COVID going on, and I’ve considered how they could have done the video as a back-up in case the summer graduation got canceled due to another outbreak,” Abby said.

Torres said she doesn’t believe the district has been silent about the hybrid graduation. She said she hasn’t received any phone calls but has received three emails regarding the graduation.

“We are working with a limited staff because of COVID so all calls that are not answered go to a voicemail that will even convert to an email,” she said. “I go through those daily. I have had only three emails. Two from parents who only made statements, and one from a student on behalf of the Class of 2020 who was very respectful and asked for an explanation of the hybrid graduation choice. I responded to the student’s questions and concerns and received a kind email back indicating that the hybrid graduation made sense, and she now understands our position.”

When the district received the governor’s guidelines, high school administration began to look at the numerous plans they had discussed to see which ones were safe and met the orders, Torres said. They consulted with an attorney and the leaders in emergency management with the city of Lufkin.

“A hybrid ceremony was their collective decision and one that, as superintendent, I must support,” Torres said. “This plan allows eight family members with the graduate, and, as many graduates are doing, they are coordinating with two closest friends to be in the auditorium together. Elderly family members will not risk unnecessary exposure, and students will have their diploma. High school administration has heard from many parents who were concerned that waiting would take their students who are enlisting in the military out of having a ceremony at all. There are no easy solutions ever in life. I would encourage everyone to focus on the positive reality that a ceremony in no way defines a graduate. They all have completed their high school years and now have many opportunities ahead of them. We will all be stronger because of this event and will move forward with healthy lives.”

Grace Juarez's email address is grace.juarez@lufkindailynews.com.

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