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Coronavirus Cancelled Their Graduations. Now What?

graduates in blue caps and gowns sit in a large cluster, presumably mid ceremony
Creative Commons
Schools across Polk County had graduation ceremonies planned throughout May. Social-distancing guidelines have made district officals consider alternative ways of honoring their seniors

Amid uncertainty about the coronavirus and the continuation of social distancing, school officials in Polk County are offering its more than 5,800 seniors the chance to vote on the format for their graduation ceremonies.

Among the options: rescheduling the traditional ceremony, a virtual recognition, or a drive-thru graduation.

“We're working with situations that we've never had to work with before. As a district, our hearts just go out to our seniors,” said Tami Dawson, regional assistant superintendent for high schools.

“We want our graduates to know that we care about them, and that we want to do our best to figure out a way to celebrate this monumental occasion that only occurs once in a lifetime - to get to participate in a high school graduation.”

Due to coronavirus closures, the class of 2020 has had to forgo many of their much-anticipated senior traditions: senior week, Grad Bash, and especially senior prom.

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A young man holds up a maroon suit jacket. The suit matches his shirt perfectly.
Credit Courtesy of Ruben Cienfuegos
"One way or another I'm wearing the suit because I'm not going to let it go to waste," said Cienfuegos. He and his friends hope to organize a coronavirus-themed make-up prom this summer.

Ridge Community High School's Ruben Cienfuegos planned on wearing a maroon suit and black turtleneck to his prom for over a year.

The day he bought the suit, the school board announced all school-sponsored activities and in-person classes were cancelled for the foreseeable future.

Czerise Villers poses on concrete steps while wearing a crimson track suit
Credit Courtesy of Czerise Villers
Czerise Villers a member of Lake Gibson High School's track and field team hopes that despite the cancellation of the spring season she'll be accepted to the University of Central Florida.

Czerise Villers from Lake Gibson High School hoped to use her senior spring to catch the eye of a recruiter and secure a spot on the track and field team of the University of Central Florida, her top choice school.

But with the spring season cancelled, many colleges have stopped recruiting.

Diana Garcia blows glitter into the camera while wearing her graduation cap and gown for a photoshoot
Credit Courtesy of Diana Garcia
"I like the idea that we'll be in a unique class - be a class that was in quarantine," said Diana Garcia. "It's something exciting, but then again, it's heartbreaking."

Diana Garcia from Fort Meade Middle Senior High School said that while many of her classmates stay in touch, reminding each other of homework assignments and commiserating about quarantine, she still misses the senior milestones.

“I have a calendar and I just put down everything that was supposed to happen this year, and it's really like it hurts to go back... and see that nothing really happened,” said Garcia.

She and her friends still hope to create their senior mural on campus, following CDC distancing guidelines. The theme -- coronavirus.

For Garcia, Villers, and Cienfuegos, having a say in how their graduation will take place is a small way to take control of a year that was anything but ordinary.

Villers and Cienfuegos are both fans of postponing their school’s graduation to a date in June or July. Since many of the senior traditions had to be cancelled, they say it’s important they hold on to that ceremonial walk across the stage.

“The other options, don't get me wrong, they're great, but I still feel like we should be able to have the same thing that all the other classes had,” said Villers.

Cienfuegos, a first-generation immigrant, is also the first in his family to graduate high school.

“Once I’m done with the online school, the real world starts and I just kind of wish I would have been able to enjoy that with my friends,” said Cienfuegos. “Whether it be at the RP Funding Center or it just be in our gym or football field, we just want a traditional ceremony.”

But Garcia likes the idea of a drive-thru graduation. For her, the class of 2020 deserves an unusual graduation to wrap up an unusual year.

“I want something to go right this year, so that’s why I voted for the drive-thru,” said Garcia. “We'd graduate out of our cars, which is kind of like, corny to say, but it's, you know, it's unique.”

One thing they all agree on? Graduation is a milestone too big for a video chat.

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How other Tampa Bay area counties are approaching graduations:

"At this time, all graduation dates and times are still scheduled as planned.  We have let our seniors know that while this is the plan today, everyone must understand the national landscape and remain flexible, knowing this is an evolving situation. Our graduation committee is looking at all possible scenarios."
- Tanya Arja, Media Outreach Hillsborough County School Board 

"There are still no set plans for graduations at this time. We are looking into a number of options, collecting feedback from our schools and families, and connecting with other disticts to see what they're considering as well. All will depend on what the CDC guidelines are and how those change, as well as any directives we're given by the Florida Department of Education." 
- Kelsey Whealy, Sarasota School Board spokesperson

"Our graduation dates are in early June,  and the Governor and Education Commissioner have not yet updated their timeline of schools being closed through May 1 – which suggests that we would be back in school on May 4.

"Now, I know that could change any day. But despite discussions about what Plan B might look like, we have not announced that we are not holding our traditional graduation ceremonies because that is at least a month and a half away."
- Stephen Hegarty, Public Information Officer for Pasco County Schools 

"We are still studying the situation and various alternatives. We should be releasing our plans in the next few days."
- Melissa Parker, Communication Specialist for the School District of Manatee County 

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Delaney Brown is a radio news intern for the fall of 2019.