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Joe Henderson: If COVID-19 taught anything, it’s not to hold graduation ceremonies

There is no one answer that makes everyone happy, but there is a correct answer.

The question is whether Florida high school students in the class of 2020 should proceed with in-person graduations in the face of COVID-19. The answer is simple, and it’s not multiple choice.

No, they should not.

Yeah, that stinks. It also stunk for advocates of $1 billion worth of programs eliminated Monday by Gov. Ron DeSantis. This year, almost everyone loses.

These seniors were essentially robbed of many memory-making moments with their classmates. They had no prom, senior skip day, spring sports, and at least for now, no chance to say goodbye to their friends or favored teachers.

So, I understand why school districts across the state are trying to salvage graduation ceremonies. To be fair, some schools already held them.

Hillsborough County has a tentative graduation schedule for 37 schools beginning July 8. The vast majority are scheduled for the Florida State Fairgrounds. And even with social distancing and other restrictions, it’s not a stretch to see how COVID-19 can spread there.

Superintendent Addison Davis will decide by July 1.

The district has not fully committed to in-person graduations, but the time for a decision is drawing close. And we know how the virus is spreading like a forest fire in communities throughout the state.

So, what to do?

“I would probably say it’s not a good idea to do this,” Hillsborough School Board member Steve Cona said. “We’re holding out as much hope as possible, but we also need to make sure we knock this thing (COVID-19) out.

“We’re holding out as much hope as possible, but if it’s not in the cards, it’s not in the cards.”

That depends on who is holding the cards.

“There is no answer that makes everyone happy,” Board member Cindy Stuart said. “I think that provided we can have a safe and orchestrated event for students, I’d like to try and have it.”

“But I will evaluate that as we get closer. I think it’s a very fluid situation. And if our Superintendent (wants) to pull the plug, he’ll pull the plug.”

High school graduations are celebrations of achievement and transition. I have been to several, and they are always special. But we’ve never tried to stage these events in a time like this.

Even if attendance is limited to two tickets per student, that still means a sizable turnout. At Tampa’s Alonso High School, for instance, 592 graduates at two tickets per student equal 1,776 attendees. Add Davis, two School Board members, and Alonso administrators.

Now, multiply that by 37. And Alonso is not the largest high school. Newsome High School graduation could attract more than 2,220 people.

“This is not required,” Stuart said. “It’s optional. If you don’t feel safe, don’t go.”

Virtual ceremonies can be an option, but … geesh, I don’t know.

I guess anything beats contracting COVID-19.

We have been through so many stages with this virus.

People pretended it was the flu, but it wasn’t.

They thought it would go away when the weather got hot, and it didn’t.

COVID-19 doesn’t play favorites. If we haven’t learned that by now, it’s never going to happen.

Here’s one thing that doesn’t have to happen, though: In-person, mass gathering, high school graduation ceremonies.

School districts just spent 13 years teaching students to be smart.

Those districts need to buy what they sell.

Written By

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.

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