Jesus Cazares Reyes had been planning his graduation party for over a year. Using his older brother’s party last year as a test run, he’d perfected the event.

The date: May 24, two days after Windom Area High School’s original planned commencement.

The location: his spacious backyard and driveway.

The food: a taco truck.

The guest list: more than 90 of his classmates, friends and family.

He was ready for anything, he thought.

“The party was successful last year when I ran my brother’s, so I was hoping it would run even smoother this year since anything that could have gone wrong, I now knew how to handle,” Cazares Reyes said. “But I wasn’t expecting this.”

Now that COVID-19 has caused schools to be closed through the end of the school year, high school seniors across the state are wrestling with canceled commencements, college plans in limbo and what to do about the graduation party.

“Graduating from high school is a very large milestone,” said Ginger Venable, an Eden Prairie party planning expert. “It’s a chance for everyone to honor them and pay tribute to their accomplishments.”

But the pandemic has forced seniors to shelve plans for their celebrations or alter them significantly.

As the first in her family to graduate from high school in America, Sara Abbas was going all out. The event, originally scheduled for June, was going to have more than 200 people, including family members who were flying from Bangladesh to see her graduate from Coon Rapids High School.

“It’s like, the entire Bengali community. There’s not many Bengali people in Minnesota, so we invite all the family, everyone from the elderly to the young kids,” she said.

For Abbas, canceling the celebration meant missing a family gathering as well as losing a last connection to her classmates. Only one of her classmates is going to the same college as Abbas, so her graduation party was going to be a goodbye to her friends and closure for her senior year.

“I’m losing an event to recognize what my family’s been through, but also echoes what I’ve been through,” Abbas said. “The last 18 years of my life I’ve been putting toward education and there isn’t that ‘Stop, take a break, show off that you did it and then move on’ moment.”

Danyelle Robinson wasn’t going to have a graduation party. Instead, the Minnehaha Academy senior was planning to take a graduation trip to Jamaica with her family before starting at the University of Minnesota in the fall. Now, her family is reluctant to buy plane tickets without knowing what the world will look like in August.

“It’s bittersweet. It’s hard to be upset over something that’s preventing people from getting sick, but it’s also difficult to kind of put your life on hold,” she said.

Katie Sandler had already been taking her classes through the U as a postsecondary enrollment options student, so she already felt separated from Minnetonka High School.

Because many of her friends had already graduated, she wasn’t planning to go to commencement or have a graduation party. She had planned to celebrate by heading Up North with friends this summer.

“Right now, it’s a rain check until everything calms down and we can do something,” Sandler said.

Downsizing and do-overs

A canceled party doesn’t have to mean a canceled celebration. There are several alternatives to traditional graduation get-togethers.

Drive-by meet-and-greets are a popular alternative. And a virtual hangout via Zoom or the popular video-chatting app Houseparty can work as a substitute. (To avoid getting overwhelmed, you can set up a waiting room and let people in one by one to allow for more intimate conversations.)

Even if it’s only a celebration with immediate family, Venable suggests doing little things that make a graduate feel special. Go ahead and decorate. Hold a mock commencement ceremony. Order a personalized cake.

Venable, for one, is an advocate of simpler celebrations.

“There was a time people were trying to do absolutely everything, and it was so overwhelming,” she said. “You’re really here to celebrate [the graduate]. Dare to be different and do what they like to do best.”

For his part, Cazares Reyes is still hopeful he can throw his graduation party — at some point. If not, he’ll make the best of it, maybe asking a few friends to stop by while maintaining their social distance.

If Robinson’s trip doesn’t happen, her family will likely have a small celebration at home, she said, but it won’t be the same.

“It’s hard for people to try to compensate for us. I know there’s a lot of things that people are trying to do,” Robinson said. “But nothing will take the place of having the senior activities that previous generations have had and future generations will have.”

Audrey Kennedy is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.