COVID graduations

The towering metal bleachers at the Gainesville Raceway will remain empty as car after car delivers graduates to the stage at the end of the strip—this is graduation for the class of 2020.

The Alachua County Public School District has arranged for all seven of its district high schools to hold their graduation ceremonies for the class of 2020 at the Gainesville Raceway. The ceremonies will take place between June 8 and June 10.

Elementary and middle school celebrations are to be independently organized by the respective schools, according to Director of Communications for ACPS Jackie Johnson.

Graduates will enter the raceway in a vehicle with their families and guests and drive up toward the decorated stage. As the names of graduates are announced over the raceway speaker, students will get out of their cars, walk across the stage in their caps and gowns to pick up their diploma and take a picture with the principal.

After walking off and returning to their vehicle, students will make a final victory lap along the raceway before leaving the facility, Johnson said.

Guests of graduates must remain in the same vehicle throughout the ceremony, and spectators will not be allowed to watch from the stands of the raceway, according to Gainesville High School principal David Shelnutt. The only people who will be outside of a vehicle are school employees working the event, graduates while they cross the stage and law enforcement, he said.

Planning the graduation ceremonies for the class of 2020 was particularly challenging due to many factors being out of the district’s control, Johnson said. From the course of the pandemic to the availability of venues, planning for an unprecedented commencement ceremony in accordance with safety guidelines was difficult to navigate, according to Johnson.

“We knew it was going to be a challenge, and we knew that we weren't going to be able to find a solution that was going to satisfy everybody,” Johnson said. “But we are determined to make this as meaningful a graduation ceremony as possible.”

Students like Malena Brinson, a graduating senior from Gainesville High School’s class of 2020, say they are grateful for the opportunity to have a commencement even when it’s far from ideal. Brinson said although the situation is frustrating for those with different family dynamics, she’s glad they get any celebration at all.

“My parents have been divorced for years now, and they really haven't been in the same room together,” Brinson said. “Trying to think about them sitting in the same car together for four hours while waiting for me to walk across the stage for one minute is a little bit unconventional.”

Brinson said she’s not the only student that this commencement ceremony poses difficulty for. Despite her gratitude for having a ceremony in spite of current circumstances, Brinson says she wishes more thought could have been put into making it more inclusive like allowing more than one vehicle per graduate.

For elementary and middle school graduations, plans vary from school to school but still revolve around safety guidelines.

Cory Tomlinson was principal of Archer Elementary School for five years before becoming principal of Lawton M. Chiles Elementary School, where he has remained for three years. Tomlinson says that the team at his school plans to celebrate their fifth grade class with a drive-through graduation.

Students and their families must also remain in their cars while driving around the school’s bus loop to be greeted by teachers and staff holding signs of celebration and wearing masks. Fifth grade graduates will receive their diploma as well as a CD with a virtual graduation. The CD will have a video announcing academic, art and physical education awards and include a graduation speech from Principal Tomlinson.

“It has been tough,” Shelnutt said. “Students have shown a great deal of perseverance and tried to make the best out of what is a challenging situation, so I've been very, very proud of them.”

Contact Natalia at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @GaliczaNatalia.