Graduation Day should always be a special time for students and their families to celebrate their children’s academic accomplishments and thank the teachers who guided the way.

But many graduation and culmination ceremonies taking place in Los Angeles County before the last of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were lifted this week often limited the amount of public attendance. And those hoping to take a photo with their favorite teacher, and give them a thank-you hug or high-five, couldn’t do so because of social distancing requirements.

Principal Lowell Bernstein and the faculty of Morningside Elementary School in the City of San Fernando found a way around those restrictions to make sure their matriculating fifth-graders had a memorable sendoff to middle school.

In two separate morning culmination ceremonies held at the campus on June 9 and June 10, nearly 90 students — both in-person and via Zoom — were recognized as graduates. And those in attendance did have their photo op: five picture “cutouts” of Bernstein and fifth grade instructors Angel Cervantes, Karla Dearden, Cindy Monzon and Maribel Ramos, in various poses, adorned the front steps of the school for picture-taking.

Bernstein said he got the idea after taking his own son for a vaccination shot at a medical center on May 16, and seeing a cutout of immunologist Dr. Anthony Fauci, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director and White House advisor who has spent so much time discussing the virus and the US’s responses to the American public since 2019.

Noting his son’s eagerness to take a photo next to Fauci’s cutout, Bernstein thought a similar idea could work at Morningside. He broached the concept with the faculty at the school, and said teachers there were overwhelmingly supportive. 

“We recognized the importance of students returning in person so that they could feel the pride and camaraderie of culmination with their peers and teachers,” Bernstein said.

“We also recognized the importance of keeping everyone safe, and at a distance for the celebration. In our planning and collaboration, we settled on the life-size cardboard cutouts so that students could take a picture with their teachers after the ceremony.”

It “helped tremendously,” Bernstein said, when Ramos said the father of one of her students was a photographer who might be willing to take the photos and make the cutouts. The father not only did the work, but also photographed both ceremonies and planned to put the photos online so those students and their families can download even more memories.

“It was really nice to have someone within our community, and the dad of a culminating student do it,” the principal said. “That was a really fortunate feather in our cap. He made everything come together.”

Bernstein was grateful his students were able to start physically returning to their campus on April 19, when the Los Angeles Unified School District allowed the resumption of in-person instruction. Being able to have live ceremonies this year, rather than virtual, for the fifth-graders moving on was an added bonus.

And he cannot wait for another sense of normalcy when campuses open again in August for the 2021-22 academic year.

“So much of what we missed [when schools were closed due to the pandemic] was the human interaction,” Bernstein said. “Zoom was a great band-aid; but it’s not a replacement for actually being in class with a teacher, and for students to be in the same physical space with their peers and classmates.

“I’m very thankful for our school and our community that we were able to make it to the finish line.”