Walker High Class of 2019

Walker graduates toss their caps to close the Class of 2019's commencement ceremony at Southeastern Louisiana's University Center on Saturday, May 18.

Noah Bonura missed his senior powerlifting meet.

He missed his senior breakfast.

He missed his senior theatre production.

He missed his senior prom.

He missed all the things seniors look forward to during their final days on a high school campus.

But as of Thursday, he won’t miss his graduation.

“I had almost accepted that we wouldn’t have an actual graduation,” said Bonura, a senior at Springfield High. “Then I got the news that they scheduled one. It was almost too good to be true.”

That was the reaction of many seniors and parents across Livingston Parish on Thursday, when the Livingston Parish Public Schools system formally revealed the times and dates for all nine of the district’s high school graduation ceremonies.

In a statement released Thursday afternoon, LPPS Superintendent Joe Murphy said the district would hold in-person graduation ceremonies over a 10-day period that runs June 23 - July 2. The nine graduations will feature a mixture of indoor and outdoor ceremonies.

The news spread quickly on social media, as schools posted the times and dates to let families know the news. That led many to fill comment sections with posts of thanks and gratitude knowing that seniors would be recognized in a more traditional — albeit adjusted — format.

Graduation ceremonies for the Class of 2020 have been in flux since mid-March, when Gov. John Bel Edwards closed all school campuses statewide to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, which hit Louisiana harder than all but a handful of states in the initial outbreak. 

Over the last nine or so weeks, school districts across Louisiana and the rest of the country have scrambled to come up with ways to honor their seniors, who had the last two months of their high school careers ripped away because of the new disease. Some school organized parades in honor of their seniors, while others placed signs and posters around town. 

But still, the question remained: Will there be a graduation for seniors? 

That question, at least in Livingston Parish for the time being, has finally been answered: Yes

In Livingston Parish, school officials have said from the beginning that the Class of 2020 — which dealt with the Great Flood of 2016 in its first semester of high school and a pandemic in its last — would be honored in some way.

And while virtual ceremonies were discussed, Murphy recently told The News that the district has been determined to hold a more “traditional” ceremony for seniors, though it would take some time to figure out what that would look like and put a plan in motion. 

After meeting with principals of the area high schools this week, the plan is set.

“These kids have been through so much since they were freshmen,” Murphy told The News before the district released its graduation plans. “They deserve more than a virtual ceremony, and we’re going to do everything we can to give it to them.”

In the statement released Thursday, LPPS High School Curriculum Director Kelly Jones said district officials made plans, including site selections, based on the capacity of available venues in light of COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, which could call for 50 percent capacity if Louisiana moves into Phase Two on June 5. 

The Southeastern Louisiana University Center, which was scheduled to host six of the parish’s nine ceremonies, is not available to the high schools at this time, forcing LPPS officials to find alternative venues.

The bigger high schools — Denham Springs, Live Oak, and Walker — will hold outdoor ceremonies on their respective football fields, with all three starting at 8 p.m. to lessen the expected “hot conditions for those in attendance,” Jones said.

Jones added that these three schools will contact seniors and parents the day before their ceremonies if any changes are necessary due to the weather.

Ceremonies for Holden, Maurepas, Springfield, Albany, and Doyle will be held in Walker High’s gym, which can seat as much as 2,200 people, though only 1,100 percent will likely be allowed in adherence to Phase Two guidelines.

The Walker High gym is also equipped with live video broadcasting equipment that will allow each ceremony to be live-streamed on Walker High’s Facebook page, as well as broadcast in its entirety on local cable stations Channel 117 on Cox Cable and Channel 130 on EATEL Cable systems.

French Settlement will hold its ceremony inside its own gym across the street from campus.

“We know how important it is for our students to share this moment with their parents and extended family and friends, and we believe the chosen venues will provide that opportunity for each high school community,” Jones said.

For now though, many seniors and parents are breathing thankful sighs of relief at the prospect of having an actual graduation ceremony.

For Bonura, senior year was going as great as he expected it would until he went to his final class on March 13 — which was also his 18th birthday — and found out that school would close due the COVID-19. Though schools were only scheduled to be closed for a month at that time, he was pretty sure he’d never walk on campus as a student again.

“It was terrible,” he said. “I feel like I really took for granted the time I had here, and then it hurt even worse thinking that we might not have a graduation. It was just crazy.”

Bonura said he was walking into work when his mother called him with “the good news” on Thursday. For weeks, he had assumed the school would send his diploma in the mail, not allowing him the closure he thought would come after going to Springfield-area schools since Pre-K.

Now, he’ll get it.

As senior class vice president, Bonura said he and others on the senior committee are going to spend the next few weeks to plan a graduation that will “bring the best of every event that a senior experiences.”

“I’m just excited, because at least we get graduation,” he said. “I’ve been talking to friends from other schools... where they’re doing a drive-up graduation. I feel so bad for them. I’m just glad we still get to have the ceremony, and we’re gonna try to make graduation as best as we can.”

Casey Schexnayder, a senior at Maurepas who was part of the school’s inaugural Pre-K class, said she has “cried more than I’ve laughed” during this quarantine semester, saying she became “really depressed” thinking she wouldn’t get a graduation with her other 24 classmates.

Then she checked Facebook on Thursday and got the news that Maurepas and all the other high schools would have a graduation, and her mood instantly changed.

“My first thought was, ‘We’re finally getting a graduation,” she recalled. “I was really depressed about it just thinking we wouldn’t have one, but now that we know we’re getting to have a graduation is amazing.”

Doyle High seniors were getting ready for a parade through the Town of Livingston when they heard that graduation had been set. Senior John Barrios found out when a friend sent a screenshot of the news in a senior group chat.

Barrios said he always thought the school would do something for the seniors, such as a walk-up graduation in which one senior walks into the office, grabs his or her diploma, takes a photo with the principal, and walks back out.

“I’m glad they didn't do us that dirty,” he said with a laugh. “But I’m excited. I’m just happy we get to do something to celebrate.”

Fellow Doyle High senior Madison Duhon described the last two months as “stressful” but said that learning she’ll have a graduation gave her a sense of “relief” and “closure.”

“It’ll be good that we have that last moment,” she said.

Seniors weren’t the only ones excited — parents were, too.

Duhon’s mother, Joey, echoed her daughter’s remarks, saying she was “relieved” and “excited” when she got an email saying that graduation had been scheduled. Madison is her first child to graduate, and it’s a moment Joey said she’s looked forward to “for 12 years.”

Before Thursday’s announcement, Joey was planning to have a “driveway graduation” to give her daughter and some of her friends a chance to be recognized, perhaps have them walk down a red carpet in a cap and gown to receive their diploma.

Now, she won’t have to. If all goes according to plan, Joey’s daughter and all the other Class of 2020 graduates will get to walk across a stage. 

“We just thought they’d send the diplomas to the house, so we’re really excited they can have their moment,” she said. “This is my first kid to graduate, so it’s a big deal. Something like this is just as important to the parents as the seniors.”

Wes Howard, principal at Denham Springs High, was in the unique position of trying to ensure a graduation ceremony for his students as well as his own child, Katie, a senior and one of two National Merit Scholarship finalists the school had this year.

Like Joey, Howard said this is “a big milestone” for parents as well as their seniors.

“Your kids are crossing that threshold from childhood into adulthood, and to be able to see that ceremony take place, even though it doesn’t really change anything really, it’s a huge and memorable marker,” he said. “For parents to have the opportunity to see that is huge.”

Listed below are the times, dates, and locations for the nine Livingston Parish high school graduation ceremonies:

-- Holden High: 6:30 p.m., June 23, Walker High gym

-- Live Oak High: 8 p.m., June 23, Live Oak High stadium

-- Maurepas High: 6:30 p.m., June 25, Walker High gym

-- Denham Springs High: 8 p.m., June 26 Denham Springs High stadium

-- Walker High: 8 p.m., June 28, Walker High stadium

-- Springfield High: 6:30 p.m., June 29, Walker High gym

-- Albany High: 6:30 p.m., June 30, Walker High gym

-- Doyle High: 6:30 p.m., July 1, Walker High gym

-- French Settlement High: 6:30 p.m., July 2, French Settlement High gym

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