In the parking lot of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, students gathered last week around senior David Butkowsky’s grill, head chef and maestro of the operation, flipping burgers (vegan options included) to feed the 156 graduating seniors of the class of 2021.

Someone had propped up a loudspeaker to give the cookout a soundtrack. A City Girls’ chart-topper elicited a round of applause while Despacito ignited a chorus of complaints.

For a class so defined by pandemic distance, the chance to gather together one more time during one of the final sunny May days of their senior spring was an opportunity no one was willing to pass up.

“I think we’re jam-packing all of senior year into these last two weeks of school ever,” Amanda Moraes said. “It feels like we’re trying to do everything. Like this [cookout] wasn’t even planned by the school, we’re doing it. I feel like our grade is trying to savor every last moment while the Covid restrictions are lowering.”

Thumbs up from Owen Atkins. — Jeanna Shepard

For the class of 2021, which had its junior year upended by the pandemic and its senior year of mix of remote and in-person learning, it has been a year of being mostly apart. But on Sunday the class comes together in person and as a whole as it heads to the graduation stage. Commencement ceremonies begin at 1:30 p.m. at the varsity baseball field on campus, a change from the traditional location at the Tabernacle. There will be mandatory social distancing and an audience made up of only family members. For the Island public, the event will be broadcast and live-streamed on MVTV, channel 14.

There will also be a public parade to honor the graduates on Saturday, June 5, along Beach Road between Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, beginning at 10 a.m.

The day marks a milestone for any senior class, but is especially poignant for this year’s graduates. The Covid-19 safety measures are another reminder of what the students had to give up as upperclassmen, including many rites of passage: proms, sports seasons, theatre productions, and other cherished traditions that were canceled, postponed or transferred to virtual formats. The shift to primarily online schooling also created formidable challenges, both academically and socially. Applying to college became an even denser maze, many students said.

Amanda Moraes and fellow senior Larissa De Oliveira, both first-generation students headed to college, said being removed from the typical in-school support systems made the application process particularly frustrating.

“It was really hard because my parents don’t know anything about college here because our families are Brazilian,” Amanda said. “With Covid, we weren’t able to see our guidance counselors, and stuff like FAFSA [federal application for student aid] is just so hard to do by yourself.”

Class gathered together at the end of a unique year. — Ray Ewing

“It was one of the most emotionally and mentally draining experiences I’ve ever had,” Larissa added.

Uniting as a class was also difficult, students and advisors said.

“This year, you have a class that didn’t have the end of their junior year,” said class advisor Nell Coogan. “Quite often, what happens during senior year with classes is that they really start to come together. What we see is they didn’t have that jelling year together as seniors. So [that process] started towards the end here finally coming in. But it’s so different, it’s still so different.”

Senior Avery Simmons echoed the thought. “I would say it was pretty divided at the beginning of the year,” she said. “I feel like before we were in-person, seeing each other only over social media, a lot of things got tense.”

But Avery said the dynamic improved once students returned to the building in January. “In-person, I feel like everyone’s more friendly,” she said.

Principal Sara Dingledy said she felt the students handled the pandemic with striking resilience.

“They’ve been a really positive group,” she said. “They were great leaders when we came back into the building. I felt like they were the students who probably had the most to be unhappy about, but they were just excited and grateful to be in school and supportive of one another.”

Celbrating at Evening Under the Stars. — Ray Ewing

For some students, living through a worldwide public health crisis transformed their post-high school ambitions.

“Before, I wanted nothing to do with health,” said senior Thalita Neves. But, after getting a job at Conroy’s Apothecary amid the pandemic, her outlook changed. “It opened my eyes. Now, I want to be a pharmacist.”

As the graduates look to the future, they reflect on the legacy they will leave behind. Class president Ruby Reimann hopes the class gift will be both a practical and aesthetic addition to campus.

“The senior gift is going to be two self-watering planters at the front entrance of our school,” she said. “They’re really nice and they last a long time, right. Kids will be using them for years to come and the horticulture program can put whatever plants they want in there.”

For others, graduation holds special resonance. Senior David Vaz moved to the Vineyard from Brazil the summer before his junior year. Graduation marks a milestone for both him and his family.

“I’m going to be the first one in my whole mom’s family that is going to graduate in the United States,” he said. “So that is the most exciting part of senior year to me.”

And as they prepare to don their purple and white caps and cross the stage on Sunday, many students who will be leaving the Island for school, work or adventure are already starting to think about what they will miss. For Ruby, a special part of growing up on the Vineyard has been the intimate and supportive relationships the community has fostered.

“We’re always here to rally for each other, especially during the pandemic,” she said. “That’s kind of the thing that’s kept us going, all of us being here for each other.”