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Drive-by graduations set at Bluestone, Park View / May 20, 2020

The Mecklenburg County School Board shared their concerns Monday night after Superintendent Paul Nichols laid out plans for a modified drive-by graduation for the Class of 2020.

The plan calls for ceremonies at both Bluestone and Park View to take place on Saturday, May 30. Bluestone’s ceremony would begin at 9 a.m. and Park View’s at 1 p.m.

Nichols said each graduating senior will be allowed to come with family but are limited to a single carload. There will be no limos, RVs, vans, open-bed trucks filled with spectators or motorcycles. The graduation packets that will be given out on May 27 at both schools will include the location of the parking space assigned to the graduate’s vehicle.

The choice of a drive-thru recognition event as a substitute for a commencement ceremony is one that school divisions are taking throughout Virginia — in part on the direction of the Virginia Department of Education.

There will be no traditional ceremonies inside the high school gymnasiums. Instead, after speeches by the class valedictorian and salutatorian, the chairs of the school board and board of supervisors, Superintendent Paul Nichols and the school principal, students will be directed to drive to a designated staging area where they will step from their vehicle, be handed a diploma and have a picture snapped by a professional photographer.

Graduates will be clad in the traditional cap and gown.

No one other than the student is allowed out of the car at any time during the ceremony.

The entire event will be live-streamed on YouTube and also broadcast live on local South Hill radio station, Rewind 101.9.

After receiving their diplomas, graduates will return to their vehicles and be directed off of the staging area.

Nichols said teachers and others will be at each school to help with parking and the flow of traffic.

After hearing the details spelled out, School Board Chair Gavin Honeycutt said he was worried that the time span of four hours between the start of the morning Bluestone ceremony and afternoon Park View ceremony was not sufficient to allow the Bluestone students to have “their special moment.”

Honeycutt said he felt the ceremony would be too rushed and did not want graduation — already modified because of the pandemic — to further detract from the students’ celebrations of their accomplishments.

Lindell Palmer suggested the school division should hold the ceremonies on two separate days to ensure each graduating class had enough time to savor the moment.

Nichols acknowledged their concerns, but did not say what changes, if any he would make to the planned ceremonies.

As other school divisions also begin plans for graduation ceremonies, the Virginia Department of Health issued its guidelines for “acceptable alternatives to graduation ceremonies.”

Laurie Forlano, deputy commissioner for Population Health, first reiterated that Executive Order 61 issued by Gov. Ralph Northam on May 8 “maintains a prohibition on gatherings of more than 10 people.”

For that reason, traditional graduation ceremonies cannot take place during the Phase I reopening period that extends, at a minimum through June 10, she said.

The alternatives Foriano proposed are:

» Hold a drive-up ceremony where families remain in their cars, which are parked at least six feet apart from each other. The number of cars allowed to attend at any given time “should be limited to a reasonable size such as 50,” Foriano said. Presenters on a shared stage or platform must maintain physical distancing and wear face coverings. There should also be hand sanitizer available for staff handing out diplomas and breaks staggered to allow for handwashing.

» A second alternative would be a “walk-up by appointment graduation ceremony.” Students and their family group, which would be limited to 10 or fewer, would receive a designated time to pick up their diploma. Everyone attending would need to wear face coverings and maintain a six-foot distance. Hand sanitizer would need to be available for staff handing out diplomas and there would also need to be staggered breaks to allow for handwashing.

» The third option would be for “curbside diploma pickup.” Seniors would drive through a designated area to receive their diploma. While family could be with the senior, no one would be allowed to exit the vehicle and everyone, especially the student would be encouraged to wear a face covering. As with the other two options, hand sanitizer would need to be available for the staff handing out the diploma, as there would need to be staggered breaks to allow for handwashing.

While the conditions for these ceremonies are only guidelines and not mandates, the current plan to have all graduating seniors simultaneously participate in a single drive up ceremony at their particular school could run afoul of the suggested “reasonable size” limitation. And the plan described by Nichols did not include provisions for students to participate who lack transportation to the school.

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