Last spring, high schools got creative for the class of 2020’s graduation ceremonies.
Families gathered in their cars and lined the track of the Gainesville Raceway instead of sitting in an auditorium. Cameras surrounded the stage to capture a live stream for those who could not attend. Graduating seniors walked across the stage as their names blasted through the loudspeakers, then they went back into their cars.
The local TV station, CBS-4, aired primetime events dedicated to all the graduating high school seniors of Class of 2020. Each high school in Alachua County had its own half-hour segment filled with speeches, musical performances and graduation photos. The Gainesville Sun also published a commemorative spread that included students’ pictures along with their names.
“We told them, ‘look you guys have been through a lot, but nobody is ever going to forget the class of 2020,’” said Jackie Johnson, the Alachua County Schools Public Information Officer.
As Florida reported more positive cases, schools at all levels got an extended spring break and continued classes online rather than in person. Unfortunately, that also meant schools had to modify their graduation celebrations and cancel events, such as prom and grad bash.
Now in the 2020-2021 school year, school districts have decided to allow proms and graduations since positivity rates continue to decrease. Universal Orlando has cancelled Grad Bash and Gradventure celebrations and plans to resume hosting these events in spring 2022.
The Marion County School Board has given its high schools permission to plan a prom on the stipulation that they must cancel it if the pandemic worsens. Partnered venues have agreed to fully reimburse schools if proms cancel because of the coronavirus.
“We were very adamant about providing students some kind of memorable moment to their achievement,” said Kevin Christian, the Marion County Schools Director of Public Relations and Multimedia Productions.
Some high schools might implement a quadrant-zoned prom, in which schools assign students and their dates to a certain quadrant for the entire evening. This system serves well for mitigating exposure if a student happens to test positive for COVID-19 after the event, said Christian.
Even if a school does not use the quadrant method, proms should still try to achieve as much social distancing as possible. Students will also be required to wear masks at the prom except for when taking pictures with their dates. Schools can choose to incorporate more restrictive plans but nothing less stringent.
Marion County has scheduled student graduations to start mid-May. The school board hasn’t determined specific regulations yet, but they intend to implement any safety measures recommended by the local health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“If we can at least make it special for the students and their immediate family, that’s our goal,” Christian said. “Graduating is a milestone achievement in anyone’s life and any effort that we can put forth to make that happen, I think we’ll get tremendous community support.”
Last year, Bradford High School, the only high school in Bradford County, postponed graduation until summer. They brought in extra seating, purchased additional bleachers, created hand sanitizer stations and provided plenty of personal protection equipment.
This year, the county now plans to have a regular graduation on May 21 at the high school’s football field. Working closely with the Bradford County Department of Health, they intend to make it as safe as possible, said Assistant Superintendent David Harris.
As of right now, cases with the county have declined to about two a day. If the downward trend continues, Harris said, the districts will hold graduation as normal, but will place recommended safety protocols as needed.
“Here we are, less than nine weeks away from graduating and completing this year, and it’s been really good,” Harris said. “I feel like we’re heading in the right direction.”
Bradford High School has set its prom for April 17 at Belle Oaks Barn. Though the county does not mandate wearing a mask, the school must follow the guidelines mapped in the district’s updated reopening plan.
Unlike most counties, Levy County held one prom in 2020. Cedar Key School had already paid and scheduled the dance for March 13, the Friday before spring break. All other schools had to cancel their event.
All high schools celebrated a socially distanced graduation in person. Since students had limited tickets, the school distributed a video of the ceremony afterward via email.
Levy County maintained limited contact in fall 2020, said Superintendent Christopher Cowart, but they made the decision to carry forth with spring events as the academic year progressed. The county does not require students wear masks at prom, but they do encourage high schools to use open spaces and outdoor venues.
“I saw the heartache of a lot of other people,” Cowart said. “I think we’ve been one to try to take precautions, but we wanted to give our kids the exposure and the opportunity to not limit them this year.”
The county continues to work through the kinks of graduation while monitoring cases in the area. In the past, prior to Covid-19, some high schools held their ceremonies at the Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.
During the pandemic, the high schools celebrated their graduations at their respective football fields, except for Cedar Key School, which held their event at the local city park. The school board will approach graduation on a case-by-case basis for upcoming ceremonies.
“We know there is no such thing as normal, but it’s just our only way,” Cowart said.
The Alachua County School District has worked closely with the Scientific Medical Advisory Council (SMAC), a group of medical experts from the University of Florida, to make decisions throughout the pandemic. The district takes their concerns to SMAC, who provides them with protocols; the school district’s coronavirus response team implements them into their guidelines.
The county gave schools the green light to begin organizing their proms, but they must follow safety measures outlined by the coronavirus response team. Precautions include serving individually packaged foods, using a no-contact check-in process and requiring masks and social distancing.
Schools can schedule their proms for after May 1 and must submit an outline of the event to the district for review by April 22. The district strongly discourages the use of indoor venues, but schools can host proms there when seniors will no longer return to campus.
“We don’t want these to become super spreader events,” Johnson said.
The district continues to coordinate with the University of Florida in arranging graduation. The events are scheduled from June 16 to June 18 in either the Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts or the Exactech Arena.
The county’s high school graduations never used tickets, but the Class of 2021 graduations will have limited capacity and a certain number of guests. The ceremonies require masks and incorporate social distancing. The district also intends to livestream the events, unlike all the ceremonies prior to the pandemic.
“We were determined to find some way to do at least an in-person graduation because we recognize that our seniors, especially, lost so much,” Johnson said. “They missed out on so many end-of-the-year traditions that many of them had been looking forward to for years and years.”