Bianca Colon, a senior at the High School of Art & Design in the Bronx, is both the youngest and first of her four siblings to graduate from high school. What’s more, as senior class president she was selected to give the commencement address. All that changed after New York City schools shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Colon couldn’t believe it. Then, graduation switched to a pre-recorded virtual ceremony, meaning her mother would miss her only chance to watch a child of hers graduate high school in real time.
“My mind was always: Go to college, get a masters, start my career,” Colon says. “I never really thought graduating high school was going to be so important to me."
As the lockdown in New York stretched from March into June, schools scrapped their commencement plans and started from scratch. Celebrations for the class of 2020—from preschoolers to medical students—have taken many forms.
At P.S. 55, a public elementary school in Queens, four-year-old Anaya and her brother, five-year-old Israphel, advanced from pre-K and kindergarten with a festive car parade so they could wave at their teachers. At the New York Institute of Technology, Brian Geraghty opted to skip his last gastroenterology rotations and complete an online course that allowed him to join a COVID-19 response team.
“A lot of us in medicine have this overwhelming sense of duty,” says Geraghty. This crisis, he says, “is something that we have been training for.” He celebrated graduating with friends over Zoom in improvised regalia made by his wife: a bathrobe and a cardboard cap with a tassel. On the day of his actual commencement, Geraghty was already treating COVID-19 patients, so he streamed the program on his phone.
As photographer Elias Williams crisscrossed New York, meeting the graduates of the coronavirus era for this portrait series, he reflected on the academic rites of passage he’d gone through between kindergarten and college.
“I thought about my family cheering me on—they knew how hard I worked up until that point,” he says. “And really, when you go to a commencement you’re celebrating for yourself, but you’re also giving them an opportunity to celebrate with you.”
For some, school next year may be online. For others, career plans have been frozen by the bleak job market. Yet despite the surreal circumstances surrounding the class of 2020, Williams found them overwhelmingly optimistic. “The general outlook is that things will pass and everything will be OK,” he says.
For the students graduating amid a pandemic, he adds, “it’ll be a year you won’t forget.”