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Tampa’s Berkeley Prep plans an in-person graduation

Seniors will walk on the football field and pick up their diplomas. Masks are optional. “In the new normal, we still have to function,” a spokesman says.

TAMPA — Despite the ongoing coronavirus threat that has pushed many graduation ceremonies to virtual formats, Tampa’s Berkeley Preparatory School is getting ready for an in-person commencement on May 31.

Seniors will be honored on the school’s football field, in the presence of limited guests and dignitaries. They will pick up their diplomas on a table at the end of the stage. Hand sanitizer will be available. Masks will be recommended, but optional.

"Being together will be the most appropriate way to honor the achievements and legacy of the Class of 2020,” headmaster Joseph Seivold wrote in a letter to the seniors and their parents.

The graduation question is one that has tied many communities in knots, pitting proponents of strict social distancing against parents and educators who don’t want to diminish the students’ sense of accomplishment.

Hillsborough’s 27 public high schools are scheduled to hold their commencement ceremonies at the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall, as they have for years. But the dates were postponed to July, subject to guidelines from the state and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Pinellas, plans are under way for virtual graduations. But the district is also holding out hopes that in-person ceremonies can take place later in the summer at Tropicana Field and Ruth Eckerd Hall.

Like the public school systems, Berkeley considered a number of options for its 153 graduating seniors: A traditional indoor ceremony, an outdoor ceremony, or something pre-recorded or virtual. Families were polled, and they chose the outdoor option.

Berkeley spokesman Jeremy Canody said the school plan complies with the current state guidelines, as the gathering will be below 25 percent capacity at the football stadium.

Each graduate will be allowed to bring two guests “and that is it,” he said. “Those guests of choice are six feet apart. The seniors are six feet apart. The faculty and staff are honoring the same rules of social distancing that will be taken care of throughout all of the seated areas." Music will be provided by a three-person ensemble, seated far apart from one another.

Students will be instructed not to touch each other, and Canody said he is confident they will do as they are told. The diplomas on the table will be labeled with their names. A staff person — wearing a mask and gloves — will make sure every student gets the right one.

As Berkeley is an Episcopal school, there will be a religious ceremony, also on the football field, on Saturday morning.

Canody said he is not concerned about backlash from those in the community who might consider the two gatherings to be irresponsible during a pandemic. He pointed out that all activity that puts people in contact with one another, even a trip to the grocery store, carries some risk.

“We left this up to our families, and the event is about our families and our seniors,” he said. “In the new normal, we still have to function.”

The event will be live-streamed. "No one is being made to come,” Canody said.

School employees did receive an email notice, which told them that “Upper Division faculty will be expected to attend.” When asked about that sentence, Canody said that “if someone felt extremely strongly, or had any illness or symptoms, they would be relieved.”

He then said, “it’s part of their job. It’s just like our teachers are expected to teach every day — although remotely at this time.”