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Pinellas announces virtual graduations, then reconsiders

After students pushed back, the district is talking about using Tropicana Field if conditions allow. Other local districts are holding off on their plans.
Lakewood High graduates enter Tropicana Field during the school's 2018 commencement. Pinellas County school officials initially announced that all graduations would be virtual in 2020 because of the coronavirus. But after a negative reaction from students, the district is discussing the possibility of using the stadium if conditions allow.
Lakewood High graduates enter Tropicana Field during the school's 2018 commencement. Pinellas County school officials initially announced that all graduations would be virtual in 2020 because of the coronavirus. But after a negative reaction from students, the district is discussing the possibility of using the stadium if conditions allow. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times (2018) ]
Published Apr. 20, 2020
Updated Apr. 20, 2020

As soon as Gov. Ron DeSantis on Saturday recommended Florida school campuses remain closed through summer due to the coronavirus, high school seniors raised renewed fears that their graduation ceremonies might not happen.

The concern has grown as other events, from spring sports to proms, were canceled. But Tampa Bay area school district leaders on Monday said they will do all they can to ensure the teens experience the milestone in person, if at all possible.

Unlike other districts, Pinellas County Schools announced over the weekend that its 17 high schools would hold virtual graduations. Then more than 1,800 students responded with petitions arguing that the school district should consider other options, like moving the events to a later date.

“Everything has been stolen from our seniors this year,” one petition states, calling virtual graduations cruel. “There’s nothing meaningful about watching life unfold through the screen of a laptop," reads the other.

Superintendent Mike Grego changed course Monday afternoon, saying in a statement that he is working toward a plan for in-person ceremonies. In an interview, he said he was unaware of the petitions but had heard from principals that students don’t like the idea of virtual graduations.

Usually, many Pinellas graduations are held at Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg. Others take place at Spectrum Field and Ruth Eckerd Hall, both in Clearwater.

Grego said he is working with officials for all three sites to discuss new options. His hope is to set dates in late July for in-person ceremonies, if possible, so that the venues are available should large gatherings be deemed safe by then.

“These things right now are just up in the air,” Grego said, adding that the district is going down “parallel tracks” to plan for both in-person and virtual ceremonies, in case in-person plans can’t happen.

“The best case scenario is that the virtual ceremony is not needed," he said. “We’re going to do anything and everything that we can do to make this as best we can a memory for the entire graduating class.”

Related: Florida schools to stay closed through semester, Gov. Ron DeSantis says

School officials in Hillsborough and Pasco counties also are trying to make new plans, noting how significant commencement ceremonies are to students and families.

Graduations in Hillsborough originally were set to start May 21 at the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall. Events have been canceled, but like students, superintendent Addison Davis is holding out hope they can be rescheduled.

“It’s tough,” Davis wrote in a recent email to families. “We want, more than anything, to watch our seniors walk across that stage and get their hard-earned diplomas. Unfortunately, in May, it just will not be possible.”

In a separate letter to staff, he said the district has booked the fairgrounds for July 13-23, which the School Board will vote on April 28. But that plan is tentative, and contingent on what health officials advise.

"Please know that the virtual option will be the LAST resort,” Davis wrote, adding that he prefers to offer a traditional, in-person graduation when allowed by health officials.

No decisions have been made about graduations in Pasco County. Superintendent Kurt Browning said in a recent video to parents that many decisions, small and large, must be made now that students aren’t going back to campuses this school year. Senior district staff members planned to hold a conference call Monday to discuss the options available for graduation.

“These are once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and we know how important they are,” Browning said. “We remain hopeful and at the same time are weighing our options. We still have several weeks to make sure that our seniors have a graduation that is memorable and meaningful.”

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