COVID-19 pandemic upends graduations across the state

(ericsphotography/Getty Images)
(ericsphotography/Getty Images)

As the academic year officially comes to a close, schools from across the state are conflicted about graduation and whether officials can provide as traditional a ceremony as the epidemic allows. 

Gov. Bill Lee extended Tennessee’s State of Emergency declaration until June 30, which leaves school officials to choose between holding ceremonies under strict social-distancing guidelines or to hold off in the hopes of more ideal conditions. 

The biggest trend on Change.org are students petitioning for graduations to be postponed to late summer, still hopeful they can have a traditional ceremony surrounded by family and fellow students, according to Amanda Mustafic, communications campaigner for Change.org. 

“More than 500 petitions from across the country have been started by students and parents, whose dreams of walking the stage, or watching their child wearing a cap and gown at a commencement ceremony, have been dashed by the coronavirus crisis,” said Mustafic. 

Six petitions from across Tennessee have received significant attention, such as one from Cleveland High School in Bradley County with 2,405 signatures from students and parents.

In a well-penned petition, Cleveland High School Student Government looked into possible scenarios where their class would be allowed to graduate together in an outdoor setting, such as the school’s Benny Monroe Stadium where the capacity is between 8,000-10,000. 

We greatly appreciate the efforts that the administration has put into finding a graduation option for the Class of 2020, however we must use practicality and consider the logic behind many heartbroken seniors who would rather not attend their own graduation if it means splitting them in half and we simply do not want this to be the case,” wrote the Cleveland High School students. 

   “You’ve got to remember, they say ‘act like you’ve been here before’ - well you know, we’ve never been here before.”    – Bart Barker, Wilson County Schools

Cleveland High School officials set the graduation date for May 15, but after backlash from the community, Cleveland High School officials decided to push back graduation to June 12 with no specific details but will be consulting with the Bradley County Health Department a week prior. 

Other schools across Tennessee have also delayed graduations. Wilson County extended their plans from June to July in compliance with the governor’s orders, and officials took into consideration that Wilson County is in the top ten counties for COVID-19 cases, said Bart Barker, public information officer for Wilson County schools. Restrictions would have to be in place, said Barker, and Wilson County was “hit with a one-two punch” due to a tornado that destroyed two schools weeks before the pandemic shut schools down. 

Barker said planning graduations during COVID-19 is like looking into a crystal ball in terms of predicting the unpredictable epidemic, which means officials won’t have a definitive plan until a month before the date. 

 “You’ve got to remember, they say ‘act like you’ve been here before’ – well you know, we’ve never been here before,” said Barker.   

Coffee County High School held a non-traditional graduation on the originally scheduled date despite a petition from the Coffee County Class of 2020 with 296 signatures. At first, officials did look into alternative methods, including asking permission from Live Nation/ AC Entertainment to use the Bonnaroo Festival property located in Manchester, Tennessee.

“We noted that there were several issues with that. Although Live Nation was going to allow us to use that property, it was property only,” said Megan Eaves, assistant principal at Coffee County Central High School. Electricity and signs were not included, said Eaves, which dashed the students’ best  hope for a traditional ceremony. 

Officials settled on a parade graduation as their safest option. Students graduated last Friday by driving their vehicles around town and ending their journey back at the high school. Students then exited their vehicles and received their diplomas and still had an opportunity to toss their tassels and caps, said Eves. 

Fayette County School Board member (Photo: Civil Miller-Watkins website)
Civil Miller-Watkins, Fayette County School Board member (Photo: Civil Miller-Watkins website)

Schools found other creative ways to honor their high school seniors. Fayette County seniors were encouraged to have “selfie made” graduations by sending in selfies and quotes that were compiled onto a video to share with the community over social media, according to Civil Miller-Watkins, a member of the Fayette County Public Schools Board.  

Other activities include the “graduation drive-thru” for students to show off their decorated vehicles while picking up caps and gowns on June 4. Fayette County’s actual graduation is scheduled for June 16 and will be held on the high school’s football field. All this planning was in accordance with student wishes.

“Senior class officers were engaged pretty early in planning senior activities around COVID-19 so their class officers were very hands-on. Perhaps that’s one reason we didn’t have many challenges with it because they’ve been able to be the voice of the students to the administrators,” said Miller-Watkins, who added that students sent out weekly information to keep everyone engaged.

Miller-Watkins had the opportunity to ask students how they felt about being at home at the start of the covid epidemic versus being at home two months later. Students initially believed they would only be out of school for a few weeks.

“It became real to them. Like wow, I just saw all my friends for the last time,” said Watkins. “Had they known they would have handled it differently.”

Watkins’ son is a high school senior, so the family has made sure to recognize his accomplishments to help him through missing out on traditional senior experiences. She feels the schools have been essential in helping students get through the epidemic. 

With some schools choosing to postpone and some continuing with end-of-the-year graduations, officials are doing what they feel is most responsible and safe for their community, said Barker.  

“As much as we love our students, and as much as we want a traditional graduation ceremony for them, we love them so much that we don’t want to bring them any harm.”