When high school seniors throw their graduation caps in the air, it may be through the sunroof of a parked car.
Alachua County Public Schools arranged drive-thru graduations at Gainesville Raceway for the district’s seven public high schools between June 8 and 10. However, some residents have expressed their concerns for students who met their graduation requirements but can’t meet the requirements for the ceremony.
Some requirements listed in an email sent to Eastside High School students may make it difficult for seniors without access to transportation or with divorced parents to attend. Families must come in one car, and students are not permitted to ride with friends who don’t live in their residence. A full tank of gas is also listed among “things to have when you arrive.”
The gates of Gainesville Raceway will open for a car parade of Eastside High School seniors and their families the morning of June 9.
Morgan Tooke, an 18-year-old Eastside senior, will be one of the students celebrated.
The requirements set by ACPS affected Tooke as a child of divorced parents.
Tooke originally planned to only take her mother because of her concerns with COVID-19 and the requirement that each family is allowed only one car. Tooke said she now decided she wanted her father, sister and stepmother to join as well.
Tooke said she has a friend who doesn’t have a car who was concerned about being able to attend graduation. However, her grandmother will drive her to the event, she said.
As a member of the school’s chorus, Tooke sang at every Eastside graduation the past four years.
“I would watch while I sang, and it just filled my heart watching them celebrate their accomplishments,” she said. “I really wanted to be able to do that, but being able to graduate at the Raceway is a great opportunity for us to have something rather than nothing.”
Despite changes to her graduation, Tooke said she plans to dress up as if she was graduating in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
“I really want to do everything I can for myself to have it as close to what I wanted,” she said.
Nardley Y. Docteur, a 31-year-old Gainesville clinical social worker, has witnessed the struggles of Eastside High School students that could potentially hinder their ability to participate in graduation.
“There is no public transportation designated to commute individuals from East Gainesville to the Raceway,” Docteur said. “It may not be the school board’s intent to exclude students from their graduation, but this is the message that is being conveyed.”
Many school-sponsored bus routes supporting students who attend Eastside were canceled in 2017, she said. As a resident of East Gainesville, she’s witnessed students spend their mornings and afternoons walking to and from Eastside.
“As a resident who lived on Lake Road in East Gainesville for the past 5 years, I've seen students who reside in Pine Meadows commute a substantial distance without the proposed bus route” Docteur said. “The experienced poverty affects students’ accessibility to transportation.”
Docteur highlighted a 2015 research study by UF on Alachua County’s financial and racial composition. In the county, 35.7 percent of black residents and 31.2 percent of Latinx residents are impoverished.
At Eastside, 74 percent of students are minorities, and 58 percent are economically disadvantaged by living with a family income that doesn’t exceed the poverty line, according to U.S. News & World Report.
Through her experience in social work, Docteur said every family looks different: some students are displaced from their parents or don’t live in traditional two-parent households.
As families can only have one vehicle during the ceremony, students with divorced parents may have to make difficult decisions, she said.
After canceling classes starting on March 16, ACPS dispatched school buses with WiFi hotspots to provide students with internet access, and Docteur said she believes those same buses can be used to transport students to the ceremony.
If the buses can’t be used, the school district should livestream the graduation on accessible platforms, such as Facebook Live, for spectators not allowed into the Raceway, Docteur said.
Docteur said she wants the Class of 2020 to recognize its perseverance.
“Life is about continuous adjustments,” she said. “Your senior year ended in a manner no one could have predicted — not even ‘The Simpsons.’ Focus on how you receive, accept and internalize the adjustments.”
Jackie Johnson, spokesperson for ACPS, said some parents and students wanted a traditional ceremony. However, the school district’s concern for the health and safety of students outweighed these requests. Traditional ceremonies in the past have taken place at UF’s venues, such as the Stephen C. O’Connell Center, which is currently closed.
UF offered ACPS to reserve venues for the end of July, but Johnson had concerns about waiting in uncertain times.
“We did not want to wait until that late knowing we would lose a lot of seniors by that time anyway, and then we could find out that we wouldn't be able to hold it at all,” she said. “So that's when we approached the Raceway, and they were very gracious to offer their space for free for those three days.”
Johnson said that Eastside’s statement about a full tank of gas was a recommendation, not a requirement. A tow truck will be on site in case of emergencies.
Vehicles from ACPS’ driver’s education program will be made available for families that don’t own a car for the ceremony, Johnson said. However, families without access to a car still must find a way to get to the Gainesville Raceway if they want to attend the graduation.
While there has been controversy over graduation ceremonies, the community has come together like never before to honor seniors, Johnson said.
WGFL CBS4 and WNBW-DT NBC9, two local TV channels, worked with ACPS to dedicate 30-minute segments to each of the district’s high schools. The Gainesville Sun plans to publish a special edition piece with the names and photos of all graduates.
“This isn't the way they wanted it,” Johnson said. “We know this isn't the way we wanted it. But there is no doubt that people will not forget the Class of 2020. They are special and they will be remembered for a very long time.”