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Tampa Bay seniors want graduation and prom. Schools are working on it.

Decisions will hinge on coronavirus trends after spring break, officials say.
Dunedin High School senior Milan Gillum asks the Pinellas County School Board to consider student safety suggestions that would allow for prom.
Dunedin High School senior Milan Gillum asks the Pinellas County School Board to consider student safety suggestions that would allow for prom. [ Pinellas County Schools ]
Published Feb. 22

Dunedin High School senior Milan Gillum had a request for the Pinellas County School Board.

She and three classmates who joined her at the Jan. 26 meeting wanted to celebrate the culmination of 13 years of schooling as normally and safely as possible.

“This has to be the greatest sendoff, so we can look back and remember the good old days,” Gillum told the board, summing up the girls’ proposal for graduation, senior breakfast and prom. Their ideas included outdoor activities with limited attendance, temperature checks and other safety features that adult chaperones could monitor.

Three weeks later, as the dates for the events draw near, school district officials in Pinellas and neighboring Pasco and Hillsborough counties have yet to settle many details on how to recognize the Class of 2021.

“We’re trying to do something for the kids that is personal and as normal as possible,” said Pinellas board vice chairwoman Eileen Long. “Will we achieve it? It’s too early to tell.”

Related: ‘Not going to lie. It hurts.’ Class of 2021 tries to stay positive.

Much depends on how the coronavirus plays out in the coming months — particularly after spring break. Schools across the region experienced spikes in reported positive cases after winter vacation. Cases have been edging downward since then, but leaders want to make sure another surge doesn’t happen after the next full week off.

“Once we see how that goes, we will make some determinations,” Long said.

Preparing for the activities can’t happen overnight. The Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough school districts already have secured locations to hold commencement ceremonies, expecting they will have some type of live events.

Last spring, even that wasn’t certain.

Schools canceled live graduations in favor of virtual ones, only later giving in to pressure and offering socially distanced events later in the summer. This time around, Hillsborough schools have secured the Florida State Fairgrounds for late May and early June celebrations, Pinellas schools have reserved Tropicana Field and Pasco schools have booked the Yuengling Center on the University of South Florida campus.

Each district has scheduled graduation dates, to allow families time to plan. But everyone needs to understand that things could change, officials stressed.

Graduates from Tarpon Springs High participate in one of several outdoor graduation ceremonies last summer at Spectrum Field in Clearwater. The Pinellas County school district required students and their families to wear masks as they walked toward a stage on the field. Each student took the stage alone to be photographed with the principal before leaving with their families to pick up their diploma at another location. There were no speeches or handshakes but graduates got to parade in their caps and gowns and hear their names called. Officials are hoping for a more traditional ceremony this year, but much will depend on what course the coronavirus takes after spring break.
Graduates from Tarpon Springs High participate in one of several outdoor graduation ceremonies last summer at Spectrum Field in Clearwater. The Pinellas County school district required students and their families to wear masks as they walked toward a stage on the field. Each student took the stage alone to be photographed with the principal before leaving with their families to pick up their diploma at another location. There were no speeches or handshakes but graduates got to parade in their caps and gowns and hear their names called. Officials are hoping for a more traditional ceremony this year, but much will depend on what course the coronavirus takes after spring break. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

“We’re still in February and graduation is not until May,” Hillsborough district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said. “Lots of things can happen between then and now.”

Pasco spokesman Steve Hegarty said the district wants to have the events at USF, but much depends on whether the district and university can provide safe conditions for everyone.

The ability to have such precautions loom large over most of the activities that mark senior traditions like grad bash and prom, where teens usually gather in large groups to dance, hang out and otherwise party. Some Florida school districts already have canceled those, saying they can’t guarantee safety.

Locally, principals and student groups are discussing their options, to determine whether they can have the activities in a way that’s fair to all schools while also meeting any needed mitigation strategies.

The Dunedin students said they were aware of the situation, and offered solutions they’d be willing to live with so they can have “a light in this dark time,” as senior Rachel Casnellie put it. They offered their ideas not just for Dunedin, but as a starting point for all Pinellas high schools to begin conversations.

“Right now, we’re just waiting,” said Gillum, the Dunedin High senior.

Senior year has been hard enough, between the regular expectations and the pandemic restrictions, she said. She was hopeful that teens will at least get to have some type of prom and a graduation their family members can attend.

“I definitely hope that they’ll let us,” Gillum said. “That’s what senior year is all about.”