High school graduates survive pandemic years, line stages across the Bay Area


Joseph Bernardo was in the second half of his freshman year when the pandemic began. By sophomore year, everything was online — and Bernardo, like so many in his class, struggled to keep up. When he was a junior, Bernardo got used to people telling him he’d never get his diploma, and he started to believe it too. But by senior year, he decided he would prove them wrong.

This week, he delivered a commencement speech to Thornton High’s Class of 2023 in Daly City, three months after graduating early.

“I really lost myself during that COVID year,” Bernardo said. “So now, this is like I’m bouncing back.”

Joseph Bernardo smiles after graduating from Thornton High School in Daly City, Calif., Tuesday, May 23, 2023. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
Joseph Bernardo smiles after graduating from Thornton High School in Daly City, Calif., Tuesday, May 23, 2023. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

Bernardo isn’t alone. Across the Bay Area, thousands of students are finishing up a high school experience like no other — one that dovetailed exactly with the rise and fall of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite that, many in the Class of 2023 aren’t upset about the circumstances. They feel stronger for it, and better prepared for whatever comes next.

“Who gets to say that they went through a global pandemic and still got through school — and that it didn’t hold them back?” said Ellis Chhourn, who graduated from Oakland High School this week. ”We were able to maneuver, find different ways to get an education, and persevere through it. I feel like because of all this, it makes our year special.”

For Bernardo, that meant learning to put in the time, and staying up past midnight studying to recover from those years of upheaval. For Geno Malone, an Oakland High grad, that meant relearning something he’d always found easy: making friends. And for Jackelin Ramirez, Malone’s classmate, that meant a change in perspective — and a better appreciation of the friends, teachers and events around her.

“You don’t realize how much a moment really matters until it’s gone,” said Ramirez. “(The pandemic) made me cherish the people around me.”

Across California, 87% of seniors graduated from high school last year, according to the state Department of Education. The Bay Area had similar graduation rates last year, with schools in Santa Clara County posting the highest proportion of seniors graduating at just over 92%.

The state’s graduation rate has been ticking up over the last decade, largely driven by gains among students of color. In 2012, just 66% of Black students graduated in California. By 2022, that number had shot up by nearly 20%. The graduation rate of Hispanic and Latino students made big gains too, from 76% in 2012 to 85% a decade later.

Those increases happened despite a multitude of challenges facing students across the country, on top of the COVID pandemic.

There were school shootings across the country, with 46 in the last year alone. A mental health crisis so dire that in 2020, California saw a 20% spike in youth suicides across the state. And then, the learning loss: By the spring of 2022, standardized test scores showed a six-year setback for California students. All were barriers that would be nearly impossible for anyone to hurdle, much less a teenager.

Jasper Sigrasabout, who graduated from Oakland High earlier this week, didn’t have an internet connection for over a year of remote learning. It would take him 20 minutes to get into his virtual classroom due to broadband issues — and by that time, his class would be half over. For most of his high school experience, Sigrasabout never thought he’d make it to graduation. But on Monday afternoon, he stood in the sunshine with hundreds of his classmates, decked out in his vivid royal blue cap and gown.

“Half of my friends dropped out,” said Sigrasabout, speaking moments before he walked the graduation stage at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre. “But now, I’m here. I’m excited, I’m anxious. My heart has been pumping like crazy ever since this morning.”

Gitana Carcamo Guillory prepares to graduate, Tuesday, May 23, 2023, from Thornton High School in Daly City, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
Gitana Carcamo Guillory prepares to graduate, Tuesday, May 23, 2023, from Thornton High School in Daly City, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

Gitana Carcamo Guillory, a Thornton graduate headed to Skyline College next fall, went through her own set of challenges. Throughout high school, there were multiple deaths in her family, including a cousin lost to gun violence. During distance learning, Guillory’s grades plummeted. And as she fought to keep up academically, she also struggled socially, stuck home at a time in life when friendships never feel more important.

Despite all of that, on Tuesday, Guillory accepted her diploma with a photo of her late cousin around her neck — and addressed her fellow classmates right after Bernardo.

“What it took to get here is unimaginable, but we did it,” said Guillory in her commencement speech. “This is merely our first step.”

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