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Tampa Bay school districts hold out hope for graduations

With the coronavirus still spreading, the ceremonies scheduled for late May to early June are still officially on, until district officials decide otherwise.
The Durant High School Class of 2019 waits to receive their diplomas during a ceremony last May at the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall in Tampa. This year, despite the coronavirus, officials in Hillsborough and other area counties are hoping conditions allow for commencement ceremonies to be held.
The Durant High School Class of 2019 waits to receive their diplomas during a ceremony last May at the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall in Tampa. This year, despite the coronavirus, officials in Hillsborough and other area counties are hoping conditions allow for commencement ceremonies to be held. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Apr. 9, 2020

On paper, early May is when Florida students and teachers return to their classrooms after weeks of learning at a distance. That’s the latest recommendation from education commissioner Richard Corcoran.

But, without a reliable estimate for when the coronavirus will hit its peak as it spreads across the state, any talk of a reopening date is speculation. Many colleges and universities have already decided not to reopen their buildings until August at the earliest.

That leaves school districts in Tampa Bay without much to go on as they plan events like proms and high school graduations for the Class of 2020. But that hasn’t stopped school officials from discussing alternatives. Here’s a look at what’s on the table as they plan for the worst and hope for the best:

Hillsborough County

School district leaders have been moving cautiously when it comes to graduations at Hillsborough’s 27 public high schools, its special education centers and alternative schools.

The posted schedule begins with Chamberlain High School’s Class of 2020 to walk at 4 p.m. May 21 at the Florida State Fairgrounds, followed by three to four schools scheduled every day after that through May 30.

While there has been talk of canceling or postponing, superintendent Addison Davis told Tampa Mayor Jane Castor in an online interview Monday that “I’m just not willing to do it now. Until we can’t do it, it’s on.”

Some families of graduating seniors received surveys asking their opinions. A district committee is considering these four options: Conduct graduations as original planned, assuming school resumes on May 1; reschedule graduations from July 6 through July 22, assuming the fairgrounds facility is not available for use in June; hold all graduations in late summer at selected schools as an alternative to the fairgrounds; or hold graduations virtually in late summer with senior pictures displayed on a webcast when the students’ names are called.

Spokewoman Tanya Arja said the district has told all seniors that proms are postponed, but graduations are still considered to be on schedule.

“While this is the plan today," she said, "everyone must understand the national landscape and remain flexible, knowing this is an evolving situation.”

Pinellas County

The school district has canceled all events, including proms, scheduled through May 1, said spokeswoman Isabel Mascareñas. Proms at Lakewood High, Dunedin High and East Lake High are scheduled after that, and it will be up to each school’s principal whether the dances happen.

No decision has been made about high school graduations in Pinellas, Mascareñas said. But district leaders are “looking at alternatives” should the state extend the safer-at-home order, which runs through April 30. She declined to elaborate on those plans.

Pasco County

It appears the Pasco district has made no decision on graduation. Several schools have rescheduled “Grad Bash” type events at theme parks into later in May.

“We are hoping students can return May 4,” said Zephyrhills High principal Christina Stanley. "We are currently continuing with plans for prom May 30 and graduation in June. All plans are subject to district and state updates.” She said she wasn’t sure about a location for the graduation.

Fivay High principal Jason Joens said Pasco high school principals met virtually on Zoom and decided “we want to be consistent with the way that all Pasco high school seniors are being recognized this year.”

Assistant superintendent Monica Ilse put out this YouTube video in late March explaining where the district was at that time, and it has not been updated. She said the district’s goal is to have all seniors completing their coursework by May 24. She also said graduations are scheduled as usual, and “if something does change we will communicate with you.”

Ilse told the School Board Tuesday that all Grad Bash events have been canceled, adding that “we have moved prom to the end of May ... and at this point we do have graduation still scheduled for June.”

Hernando County

The school system has canceled all district-sponsored events except high school graduations through the remainder of the school year. This includes field trips, athletic events, award ceremonies and proms.

A letter sent to parents March 27 said the decision was made based on recommendations by health officials. District leaders are waiting to make a call about graduations because they are “such important milestones,” said spokeswoman Karen Jordan.“We are waiting to make that decision until we are certain there is no safe way to move forward.”

Times staff writers Megan Reeves, Marlene Sokol and Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.

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