As is the plight of nearly every high school senior in any graduating class of 2020, Gainesville High School's nearly 500 graduates will have to settle for a different kind of commencement experience at City Park on Friday, July 24.
The Gainesville City School System late last week decided its original plans for a full but delayed graduation ceremony that day, with all graduates and families to attend at once, will not be possible given the continued spread of COVID-19, Superintendent Jeremy Williams told The Times.
In a letter published to the high school's Facebook page on Saturday, July 18, Gainesville High School Principal Jamie Green said the school system had hoped that the risk of community spread would diminish over time when the "difficult but necessary" decision to delay graduation was made in May.
"A crisis that was unanticipated to begin with, now continues to develop in ways we could not have foreseen," Green's letter says. "Even with the strictest safety protocols in place, we cannot escape the fact that a traditional commencement ceremony at this time would most likely lead to a surge in cases. It would not be responsible for us to put you and your families in a position where you would have to choose between your graduation ceremony and your health."
Williams echoed that sentiment on Tuesday.
"The (COVID-19) numbers continue to increase," the superintendent said. "To try to put a few thousand people into a stadium, even with the safety precautions we would have, you would still have concerns about people walking up to the event, lining the fence there at City Park and just the fear of it becoming a spreader event."
Instead, Gainesville High School families will attend smaller graduations at City Park throughout the day, school officials say. Families will select time slots and will filter in and out of the park with the help of district staff, who will ensure everyone is wearing a mask and staying physically distant from each other, Williams said. Only those who attend with a graduate will be allowed at the graduations, Williams added.
Williams said instead of cutting back on the number of tickets afforded to each graduate to limit that attendance, staggering smaller ceremonies throughout the day will allow families to fully participate in their Gainesville senior's life milestone.
While delaying graduation ceremonies months past the end of school have meant only half of graduating seniors and their families have attended the events in some school districts, Williams said at last check, around 80% of families reported they'd participate.
High schools in the Hall County school system held their own altered graduation ceremonies in May. Like Gainesville, some schools allowed only single family groups at one time, while recorded speeches from valedictorians and salutatorians played. Others, like East Hall High School, set up a drive-thru format, with seniors motoring up to an outdoor stage followed by up to two other cars of family members and exiting their vehicles to receive their diplomas before leaving the high school's campus to make room for the next family's motorcade.
Williams said, though it's not the ideal situation, he's happy to be able to give Gainesville families a chance to see their graduate walk the stage.
"For a number of our families, this is the first high school graduate some of them have had. And it's been a 13-year journey from kindergarten through 12th grade," he said. "It's closing one chapter and opening another, and I think it's important that families have that opportunity, under the circumstances, the best way we can provide it."
Green said Tuesday that time slots will begin at 8 a.m. and run through 9 p.m. on Friday. He said multiple families sign up for each time slot. He said families will park in the parking lot at their designated time, and a volunteer will come check them in. When it's time, each of the graduating Red Elephants will be directed to a place in line and their family will be moved to a designated observation spot.
Green said there will be opportunities for families to take photos, and when the ceremony is over, graduates and families will return to their vehicles and leave the park.
Speeches will be played throughout the day, and, as is tradition, a fireworks display at City Park will celebrate the class of 2020, school officials say. Fireworks will begin at 9:20 p.m. Green said the school has provided families with a list of parking places where fireworks will be visible and is recommending families remain in their vehicles and practice social distancing.
Green said the day will be long and hot — forecasts estimate a high of 89 and humidity above 65% — but the sweat will be worth it.
"We center what we do on what's best for our students, and we wanted more than anything to be able to celebrate them in a traditional commencement setting, but we're not able to do that," the principal said. "So if we have to pull a 13-hour day in the heat to celebrate them, then that's what we're going to do. These kids have put in four years of hard work at the high school and many more before that, and we only think it's fair to put in a good day of hard work as well."