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Hillsborough cancels indoor high school graduations

The risk of COVID-19 transmission is too great, district leadership decided.

TAMPA — High school graduations at the Florida State Fairgrounds will not happen this year for Hillsborough County, superintendent Addison Davis announced on Tuesday.

“This decision was not made lightly, but I must first consider the health and safety of our students, staff and families,” Davis wrote in a message to School Board members that followed nearly a week of alarming COVID-19 statistics in Hillsborough County.

The message indicated Davis made the decision in consultation with the board members and local health officials, and that there will be virtual graduations instead.

Board chairwoman Melissa Snively, who also serves on the county’s Emergency Policy Group, said she was disappointed.

“It hurts my heart that I can’t give them something more traditional,” she said. “But at the end of day, it is the superintendent’s decision to do that, and I am going to support his decision and give my best wishes to the graduating class of 2020.”

Working with fairgrounds staff, Davis had constructed a system of protocols designed to give students a traditional commencement experience with minimal risk of transmitting the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Students would wear masks until the moment they posed for a socially distanced photo with the principal. Families would be spaced far apart.

But even the modified format would have placed hundreds of people at a time in the air-conditioned Expo Hall, with multiple events each day. With case reports escalating sharply, Davis pulled the plug.

Related: Graduations are still not a sure thing, Hillsborough school board members say

Florida topped 150,000 recorded coronavirus infections on Tuesday with 6,093 cases reported in the previous 24 hours. As of the latest counts, Hillsborough has 10,752 cases and 141 deaths, with a positive test rate of 19.8 percent. The growth in new Hillsborough cases has been steep since around June 18.

In recent weeks, Pasco and Pinellas counties have both announced plans to hold graduation ceremonies outdoors — Pasco at the school stadiums and Pinellas at Spectrum Field in Clearwater.

In a series of tweets Tuesday afternoon, the Hillsborough district said that “each school will have a drive-thru diploma ceremony with social distancing in mind. We have also contracted with an outside vendor to provide virtual graduation videos for each school.”

The tweets went on to say that “our staff reached out to other outdoor venues, but the cost to rent the facilities and sanitize them between graduations was not fiscally possible. Our staff consulted with the health department and medical experts were in agreement that we should avoid any large gatherings.”

The district also considered using high school stadiums. “However, the seating arrangements at our sports stadiums would prove even more difficult for social distancing.”

Hillsborough has been working on a virtual graduation plan, as a back-up, ever since the graduation question came under discussion in April.

“We’ll do our best to make this virtual ceremony the best it can be,” said Steve Cona, the board’s vice chairman.

As for the seniors, who had been in limbo waiting for a decision, “we appreciate their patience and sacrifice,” Cona said. “But we want to make sure that we’re doing our part to keep people safe.”

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