Pandemic Forces Tampa-area High Schools to Rethink Grad Activities

May 18, 2020

By: Tiffany Razzano

TAMPA – Even though Florida’s economy has begun to reopen, schools remain closed because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This has put a damper on the 2020 graduation season, as state leaders and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend against large gatherings.

Tampa-area high schools have been forced to adapt their original graduation plans by rescheduling their in-person commencements and finding new ways to celebrate their senior classes.

Hillsborough County Public Schools has pushed back graduation dates for the Class of 2020 to July 13-21 at the Florida State Fairgrounds, said Tanya Arja, the district’s chief of communications.

“We will continue to monitor the CDC guidelines to ensure we can move forward with our plans for the traditional graduation ceremonies later in the summer,” she said.

Meanwhile, Hillsborough’s high schools have found creative ways “to celebrate our seniors” this month, Arja added. “They have been having cap and gown distribution drive throughs. One school (Strawberry Crest High School) is doing a prom parade.

Jesuit High School’s Raleigh Bulleit accepts his cap and gown for baccalaureate mass during a May 15 drive-through on campus.

The students will dress up and drive in their cars up to the school where there will be music playing and, one at a time, students will be taking ‘prom pictures.’ We also have schools planning other drive-through type events that coincide with their original graduation dates.”

Ashlee Randall, 17, a senior at George M. Steinbrenner High School, said the cancellation of graduation events, particularly Splash Bash at Adventure Island and senior prom, has been “really disappointing.”

Ashlee Randall displays her graduation yard sign in the front yard of her home.

She’s heard her teachers and peers discuss “the possibility of a virtual graduation,” but she’s holding out hope that they’ll be able to celebrate in person in July.

“It’s just a special thing that I hope we get to do,” she said. “A lot of my teachers been posting goodbyes and there’s been a few tears shed. I would rather have the real thing in person.”

Private schools in the region have also rescheduled and retooled their graduation plans.

“Like everyone, we had to adjust, and nobody knows when it will go back to normal,” said Robert Lees, principal, Tampa Catholic High School. “We needed to figure out what we can do now to ensure we do something for our seniors. Anything done later can be an addition.”

Typically, Tampa Catholic hosts four graduation events – the Senior Farewell, prom, a baccalaureate mass, and a commencement, which was scheduled for May 19.

Tampa Catholic High School seniors decorated their car for a May 15 campus parade to pick up their yearbooks and other items.

The school plans to move the commencement ceremony to July 27 and has reserved the Straz Center for the Performing Arts for that date, which is still “an unknown,” Lees said. Staff has also penciled in a second back-up date, Dec. 27 on the school’s football field, he added.

Faculty and staff also pre-recorded an “informal” Senior Farewell video that they released through the school’s learning management platform. A videographer began filming “a more formal and polished” pre-recorded ceremony including speeches and a calling of graduates’ names. The video will be released on the school’s YouTube page May 28.

The school has also hosted smaller, fun events for seniors including a door decorating contest, yard sign deliveries, a scavenger hunt and a May 15 drive-through parade for seniors to pick up their yearbooks.

Tampa Catholic High School seniors decorated doors in school colors and memorabilia and posted them to social media to stay connected during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s been crazy, but we’re spending a lot of time on this because we have a lifetime relationship with our alums and we want them to have a memorable experience,” Lees said.

Pete Young, director of communications at Jesuit High School, said the school’s graduation mass and ceremony were slated for May 21 and 22. If the Straz Center reopens next month, the school has reserved the venue for a June 17-18 celebration.

“But they have to be open for us to do that. I’m not expecting that with the way the world is,” he said.

Jesuit also has back-up dates scheduled for July and August.

Many other traditions at the school have been reconfigured, he added, such as Senior Day, which “is ordinarily a big day for our students.” The day includes a farewell mass, a speech from the class president and a class picture taken on the baseball field.

This year, Jesuit hosted a drive-through parade for its 200 seniors, instead. They picked up their yard signs from campus and enjoyed a boxed lunch from Chick-fil-A.

Since the school switched to online classes in March, it’s also regularly streamed announcements and masses each week, events that would typically take place in person.

“We tried to make it the most normal abnormal situation as possible,” Young said.

Staff at Cristo Rey Tampa High School is striving to ensure the pandemic doesn’t ruin plans for the school’s first-ever graduating class, said Terri Dodson, director of communication and marketing.

Cristo Rey Tampa High School, President Scott Morreale with senior Steven Faison III

“We’re trying to keep it as exciting as we can,” she said. “Senior year is always a special time for students, but this first year is also a special time for the school.”

Last week was Senior Recognition Week and school staff dropped off yard signs at seniors’ homes. Cristo Rey has also planned a block party and campus drive-through event on June 5 for students to pick up their cap and gown with a photo opp.

Cristo Rey Tampa High School 2020 Graduating Class

Graduation itself has been rescheduled for Aug. 8. After surveying students, “almost 90 percent” said they wanted to celebrate in person, said Dodson.

“It’s very important to them,” she said. “It’s a huge accomplishment. Our students not only come to school and take on a rigorous academic setting, they all also work in a corporate setting, and we want to celebrate their hard work.”

Kevin Plummer, Tampa Preparatory School’s head of schools, said his “heart is broken for all members of the Class of 2020. Collegiate and high school and grade school, whoever is supposed to be graduating.”

He added, “It’s a real test to our community. We needed to be creative and innovative to celebrate these young people, who worked so hard to get to this milestone.”

School employees delivered graduation yard signs to all 118 members of the senior class and students also created an Instagram page to stay connected.

“There are some really heartwarming messages on that page. It’s a great celebration of their time at Tampa Prep,” Plummer said.

The school’s May 21 graduation at Straz Center has been rescheduled to July 28 with a rain date of July 29. If the venue isn’t open and the CDC still doesn’t recommend large gatherings, Tampa Prep will host a virtual graduation, he said, but “our goal is to have an opportunity for these fabulous young people to come together one more time to celebrate each other and see each other.”

In the meantime, students will decorate their vehicles for a May 21 parade through campus to pick up their caps and gowns.

The school’s annual Senior Walk went virtual this year, as well. Typically, 6th– through 11th-grade students line the halls and cheer on the seniors as they walk through the school. This year, faculty and staff took this walk without the students, dancing to the senior class’ favorite song, “Sweet Caroline.”

“We just feel so bad for these kids,” Plummer said. “We’ve all gone through it. We’ve all had senior years, and there’s so much pomp and circumstance as you get to the end. This has been stolen from these kids. We’ve been finding a way to do our best and pivot and say, ‘We appreciate all of you.’”

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