Colleges, high schools prepare for graduation season in a time of changing health rules

Noel Lyn Smith Joshua Kellogg
Farmington Daily Times
At right, Jacob Wood received the Merrion Scholar of the Year award from the San Juan College Honors Program on April 30 at the program's drive-thru event to recognize students who are graduating with academic honors this month.

FARMINGTON — Graduation season this year will look different than in pre-pandemic times. A quick survey of several school districts and colleges serving the region indicates some high school administrators are still playing things by ear and waiting to see if state COVID-19 restrictions change while colleges have their plans set.

While San Juan College is holding drive-through events and planning a virtual commencement, Diné College across the Arizona border plans a live ceremony.

On the high school side, they're waiting for more information in Aztec, and Bloomfield Superintendent Kim Mizell said that — whatever happens — the grads will have recognition because "we're prepared to do whatever we have to do."

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San Juan College student Ashley Kihega, center, receives her award from the college's Honors Program during a drive-thru event on April 30 in Farmington.

San Juan College mixes it up

The San Juan College Honors Program recognized 76 students who will graduate from the college this month with academic honors by holding a drive-thru event on April 30.

At the event, students received certificates, medals and packaged enchilada dinners with minimum social interaction due to the coronavirus pandemic – a step the college's various programs and services have been taking this semester to honor graduates before the virtual commencement this month.

More than 1,300 graduates who have earned certificates or associate degrees will be recognized in a live web stream of the virtual graduation at 10 a.m. on May 15 on the San Juan College website,

San Juan College President Toni Hopper Pendergrass, left, and Elaine Benally, interim dean of arts, communication and humanities at the college, review a list for the college's honors program on April 30.

According to the college's press release, the commencement will include 68 San Juan College High School graduates, 339 graduates from the college's Academic and Career Engagement Center, the New Mexico Highlands University Farmington Center and the University of New Mexico San Juan Center will have more than 134 students earn their bachelor's and master's degrees.

College President Toni Hopper Pendergrass will preside over the ceremony and Vince Moffitt, CEO of Basin Health Companies and President of Arroyo Rescue and Recreational Training Inc., will give the keynote address.

Dreeyale Yazzie, who is part of the first graduating cohort from the college's Career-Life Engagement and Readiness program, will represent the graduating class by speaking at the ceremony.

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Diné College plans in-person event

Diné College will hold spring commencement in person on May 7 at its campus in Tsaile, Arizona.

The ceremony will be in two sessions that follow protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and each student will receive two tickets for family members, according to a press release.

"This year has been especially rough for everyone, but 98 students will get their chance to walk the stage. It will be a time to celebrate their achievements," College President Charles "Monty" Roessel said in the release.

Susan Merrion, left, and T. Greg Merrion congratulate a San Juan College student who will graduate with academic honors during the recognition drive-thru event by the college's Honors Program on April 30.

The first session will start at 9 a.m. for the School of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and the School of Arts, Humanities and English. The commencement speaker will be Dr. Michael Tutt, chief of staff at Tséhootsooí Medical Center in Fort Defiance, Arizona.

Graduates from the School of Diné Studies and Education and the School of Business and Social Science will be recognized in the second session at 1 p.m. KOB-TV news anchor Colton Shone will give the commencement address.

Both sessions will broadcast on Navajo Nation TV5 and radio station KXWR-FM and stream live on the Diné College Facebook page.

Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint did not respond to a request for information about its spring commencement.

School districts await word about graduation ceremonies

State public schools are following guidance issued in a March 18 memo from the New Mexico Public Education Department.

It states the capacity for graduation ceremonies dictated by the county's color in the state's COVID-19 map.

For Turquoise, outside venues can have up to 75% occupancy for spectators and up to 33% for indoor venues.

Green counties can up to 50% in outdoor venues and 25% for indoor venues.

There is only 25% capacity for outdoor venues for counties operating in Yellow.

Two options are available for Red counties: a ceremony without spectators or a drive-thru ceremony where people remain in their vehicles.

Aztec schools

The ceremonies for Aztec High School and Vista Nueva High School will be finalized once the May 5 update to the state's COVID-19 restrictions map.

Aztec high's ceremony is set for Fred Cook Stadium, but district officials are determining where to host Vista Nueva's ceremony, according to Aztec Superintendent Kirk Carpenter.

Carpenter said district officials will finalize details on the number of tickets each graduate receives as soon as possible.

"I think the biggest thing is, as soon as we get information and we can make decisions, we're making them and we're getting them out to families," Carpenter said.

Bloomfield schools

The Bloomfield School District is focused on preparing for in-person graduation ceremonies for Bloomfield and Charlie Y. Brown high school commencements, according to Bloomfield Superintendent Kim Mizell.

If San Juan County backpedals into the Red level, the district is preparing for drive-thru ceremony that is livestreamed with the graduates walking across a stage.

"We're keeping our fingers crossed that we change in color, but if we don't, we're prepared to do whatever we have to do. They'll get some kind of ceremony," Mizell said.

Each graduate is set to receive two tickets for spectators if the county is in Yellow and they will receive more tickets as the color tier improves.

District officials will lock into their plans once the May 5 update is released by the state.

Farmington schools

Ceremonies for Farmington, Piedra Vista and Rocinante high schools will be held at Hutchinson Stadium this year, according to Farmington Municipal Schools Spokesperson Renee Lucero.

Capacity at the events will be dictated by the San Juan County's state-designated color level.

Lucero said commencements are being described as "one-off" events, so the mass gathering of students can happen no matter the color level the county is operating within.

She also wanted to thank the high schools' staff and principals who have put in tremendous effort to prepare for these ceremonies.

Shiprock schools

The Central Consolidated School District will announce on May 5 details for Kirtland, Newcomb and Shiprock high school graduations, according Superintendent Daniel Benavidez.

At Shiprock Associated Schools, details have not been finalized for the 18 graduates who will receive their diplomas from Northwest Middle and High School, according to Executive Director Rick Edwards.

Edwards is trying to navigate guidance from the Navajo Nation regarding the ceremony. He believes the event will be outdoors or a drive-thru ceremony. The school is still bound by the Navajo Nation executive order prohibiting in-person instruction until July.

He hopes to finalize details with the graduating seniors soon and possibly livestream the ceremony.

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