Taylor Briones, valedictorian at Valley Academy of Arts and Sciences in Granada Hills.

The academic school year of 2019-20 has finally, mercifully, come to an end.

And like other high school graduates across the country, the approximately 30,000 Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) eligible graduates that make up its Class of 2020 were not whooping it up in caps and gowns at an outdoor stadium or amphitheater, striding confidently across a stage for their diplomas. Instead, they were restricted to drive-thru graduations or to a “virtual” commencement.

Poly High in Sun Valley, and Panorama High in Panorama City were among the schools that provided drive-thru “graduation parades” for their seniors. Students and family members drove to a designated spot, rolled down a window and received their diploma by their respective principal as teachers stood by and cheered.

Some families have held their own celebrations where friends drove by their residences, waving and cheering grads who were standing outside. 

The hourlong LAUSD-televised “virtual commencement” for all its graduates was sprinkled with notables including US Sen. Kamala Harris, Gov. Gavin Newsom and First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newson, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, and entertainers including Lil Jon and Ellen DeGeneres, all offering their salutes and good wishes.

But the world the Class of 2020 now steps out into has been radically altered, and perhaps permanently changed, by two globally significant events: the COVID-19 pandemic that first broke out in Wuhan, China in December of 2019, and the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May.

The health pandemic has struck practically everywhere in the world, with 8.18 million cases reported in 188 countries, resulting in more than 443,000 deaths as of June 16. Science frantically searches for a working vaccine, but so far there is no available cure.

Floyd’s death, filmed on a cellphone, has sparked worldwide outrage and continuing protests against police brutality. More Southland protests took place on Wednesday at the Sherman Oaks Galleria and the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles.

No wonder the graduates — who saw their schools close in March, forcing them to finish their last semesters online; their winter and spring sports cut short or canceled; and major social events like proms and grad nights eliminated — sounded as if they had grown up faster than planned.

“I know this is not how we envisioned our graduation to be,” said Juan Gomez, San Fernando High senior and student body vice president. “However, in life we are going to experience times that will not be as we envisioned.”

Noted Taylor Briones, valedictorian at Valley Academy of Arts and Sciences in Granada Hills, “I wondered how I would say something inspiring in such difficult times like these. [But] even when it seems that COVID-19 has taken everything away from us, it cannot take away our decision to decide who we want to be and what we want to do.”

District Superintendent Austin Beutner also offered a perspective.

“Every graduating class inherits a world of challenges and opportunities — yours maybe more than most,” Beutner said. “There’s a lot of talk now about a ‘new normal,’ or maybe abnormal. But don’t be satisfied with ‘normal. Strive for extraordinary. Your hard work and creativity have brought you this far. And I’m excited to see where it will take all of us next.”

Indeed, the Class of 2020 will be forever defined by the way and how it will rise above the enormous fray that it as a class, and society as a whole, still find themselves surrounded by.

The number of COVID-19 cases continue to spike in the US, even as businesses slowly begin to reopen and the public — either out of defiance or complacency — starts to congregate in larger numbers. Momentum from the protests show no signs of slowing, especially with national and regional elections coming in November.

In a warped universe kind of way, it’s fitting that the Class of 2020 did not have some of the usual trappings of a senior year like proms and grad nights. They have been earmarked for a different destiny; in this beginning of a new decade, they’re being called on to do bigger things.

Perhaps the real celebrations for the Class of 2020 will come on their anniversary gatherings 10 and 20 years from now.

What the world will look like then, we do not yet know. But it’s the hope they help to make the world a better place.

A television rebroadcast of “Los Angeles Unified Celebrates the Class of 2020” will take place Sunday, June 21, on KLCS-TV at 7 a.m.