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County schools prepare for 2020 graduation

By MARINA WATERS

Staff Writer

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When the class of 2020 finally throws its graduation caps into the air, the Washington County Board of Education hopes students can be among friends and family. But only time will tell if that’s an option, school officials said.

“If you had to have (a graduation ceremony) tomorrow, you would have to take everyone’s temperature, you would have to issue masks and you would have to social distance and limit attendance,” Director of Washington County Schools Bill Flanary said. “In two week’s time . . . it may be completely different.”

At the BOE’s Tuesday, May 19, meeting, the school board unanimously opted to put $18,000 towards a graduation ceremony to be held on Daniel Boone and David Crockett’s football fields on either June 19 and 20 or July 24 and 25. That cost covers a rented stage, audio system, printed programs, stipends for teachers and staff working at the ceremonies and security. 

At the May 7 meeting, the school board voted to host a virtual graduation inside each school’s gymnasium with social distancing protocols in place, while a more traditional outdoor ceremony will be scheduled later this summer. But Washington County Director of Secondary Education Ashely Keys said that second graduation will look different than graduations past.

Keys said Boone’s football stadium at full capacity holds 3,000 people while Crockett’s holds 2,000. The state’s guidelines for graduation ceremony calls for only a third of that capacity, leaving Boone with a social distanced capacity of 1,000 and Crockett at 667. Each graduate would be allowed up to two guests.

Keys also said the plan currently includes no band or choral performances due to a possible projection of germs, but pre-recorded performances might be an option. Diplomas will be placed on a table for students to pick up without handshakes with school officials. Everyone would also be expected to wear masks and have their temperature taken before entering the stadium.

“Students are probably not going to be excited to wear masks, and it will be hot,” Keys said, “but if they could decorate those masks how they want and then they could keep them for their scrapbooks it might be a more positive experience, especially if we could find someone in the community who could make those at a cheap cost and students could order what they like.”

Keys said to monitor the number of guests, the schools would issue tickets. But if social distancing requirements are relaxed, board members said, that number could possibly change. The board opted to decide on the number of guests at the June 4 BOE meeting, after social distancing guidelines are expected to be updated.

“I think it’s fine to set it at two (guests per graduate) and then bump it up at our June meeting,” Board member Todd Ganger said. “We can say, ‘Okay, well we can open it up a little more.’”

Flanary added that in June, the chances of being able to relax those social distancing guidelines could also decrease. 

“Medical professionals are saying that because nobody is wearing masks and social distancing anymore, they are looking for — and this is from Vanderbilt University — a pretty sharp upswing in the infection rate in Tennessee in the next couple of weeks. Those are guesses made by professionals.”

Three student board members also attended the meeting electronically. 

One Boone student, Mallory McClelland, said she felt an outdoor ceremony with more guests is the goal, especially after having a small virtual graduation with six guests per graduate.

“We can have six (guests) with us at a small group graduation, but when it’s our real one, we can only have two,” McClelland said. “That’s just your parents. A lot of people have siblings. Both of my brothers won’t get to see me graduate formally. If we are opening restaurants to full capacity, I don’t see why we can’t have more people if we’re outside and wearing masks.”

Keys also said breaking the outdoor graduations into two groups per school could increase the number of allowed guests, but that also cuts down on the number of classmates students will get to graduate with.

“If you were to divide it up into two ceremonies, you could possibly have more guests,” Keys said. “But what I’ve heard from students is they want to graduate with their friends. So we need to consider that.”

The next BOE meeting will be held electronically on June 4. That meeting can be live-streamed at WCDE.org.