Alachua County high school seniors attended their graduation ceremonies, maskless and side-by-side, for the first time in two years. The county had more than twice as many COVID-19 cases during this year’s graduation week compared to last year.
High school graduation ceremonies in Alachua County did not have any COVID-19 restrictions this year, and graduates were allowed an unlimited number of guests. Though in-person ceremonies were held in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center last year, graduates were required to wear masks and were spaced for social distancing.
According to the New York Times, the daily average for new reported cases in Alachua County during the week of graduations was 70 cases per day. Last year, the daily average during graduations was 26 cases per day. In 2020, the daily average was 4 cases per day.
John Engstrom, a 21-year-old Gainesville resident, said they were wary of Alachua County lifting the restrictions for the graduations, but they attended the ceremony to see their friend’s sister graduate.
Engstrom said the pandemic’s lingering effects put those in attendance at risk, including the students graduating.
“It’s pretty terrifying to see how many people are here without masks,” Engstrom said.
Optional masking, they said, seemed to be in line with how Alachua County has handled COVID-19.
Graduation ceremonies began May 24 and ended Friday. Buchholz, Gainesville, Eastside, Santa Fe and Newberry high schools were held in the O’Connell Center. PAM at Loften High School and Hawthorne High School’s ceremonies were held in the Phillips Center for Performing Arts.
Melanie Feltoon, a senior event coordinator for the O’Connell Center, would not comment on if there was any extra security in wake of the recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. Standard guidelines prohibited noisemakers and all weapons from the event. Metal detectors were also used.
Knekeysha Graham, a 39-year-old stepparent of a Gainesville High School graduate, said she was comfortable with a maskless ceremony because of declining COVID-19 cases.
New daily cases in 2022 peaked at 933 Jan. 20 and dropped below triple digits with 91 on Feb. 18; they have not not surpassed that number since.
Graham said she hated seeing students graduate under the stress of the pandemic. The restrictions, she said, limited how much support students could get from family by making them pick and choose who could attend their graduations.
Saniya Graham, Knekeysha’s 17-year-old stepdaughter and recent Gainesville High graduate, said removing restrictions like a guest limit allowed her to invite everyone she wanted to watch her get her diploma.
She said she was relieved she was able to graduate with her friends without being six feet apart.
Tessa Betke, a 17-year-old recent Santa Fe High School graduate, said it was a relief to graduate without social distancing or wearing a mask . She enjoyed having the freedom to experience the ceremony without restrictions, unlike her 20-year-old brother, Garrett Betke, who graduated from Santa Fe High School in 2020.
Garrett recalled his graduation at Gainesville Raceway, where he drove a car around the track to accept his diploma. He said the hot weather was not ideal for sitting in the car in a cap and gown.
“Even though we weren’t so fortunate, I’m just glad that my little sister can get the graduation that she always dreamed of,” Garrett Betke said.
Josh Hewett, the 43-year-old father of recent Santa Fe graduate Madison Hewett, said he enjoyed seeing the teenagers graduate without restrictions — it was a morale boost for everyone.
Contact Jackson Reyes at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JacksnReyes.
Jackson Reyes is a third-year sports journalism major. He is the Gator's soccer beat reporter and previously worked as a general assignment reporter on the Metro desk. When he's not reporting, he enjoys collecting records and taking long walks on the beach.