Graduating seniors of the three high schools in the Bulloch County system will walk across stages to receive their diplomas – but with only a few guests, such as their parents, watching from a maximum of two cars per student – this Friday, Saturday and Monday.
The graduation walks, scheduled in small groups over the three days for Statesboro High School and Southeast Bulloch High School, but all on Saturday for Portal Middle High School, will be professionally video-recorded and photographed. The walks, and other videoed aspects such as speeches by each school’s valedictorian and salutatorian, will be assembled into virtual graduation ceremonies, copies of which the schools will provide graduates and their families for free.
This is the plan that emerged after school officials first sought to hold a socially distanced on-field ceremony for each school’s assembled graduating class, minus all other in-person spectators, like the one the U.S. Air Force Academy held in April.
Georgia Department of Education officials advised that a decision to do something like this should be made with approval from the local health department. The Bulloch County Health Department then deferred to the Georgia Department of Public Health’s district office, and the district health director said she could not support it, explained Bulloch County Schools Superintendent Charles Wilson.
“That being said, we had options of waiting till later in the midst of uncertainty, which could have robbed a lot of our students and graduates the opportunity to be here, and we didn’t want to do that,” Wilson said. “It had been suggested by some board members and others in the community that we consider a drive-up-type graduation like other school systems were doing, but we worried about our students not having that experience of walking across the stage.
“So we came up with the idea of scheduling students to come to the school like a drive-up, but we would allow them to get out of the vehicle and walk across the stage to receive their diploma, which is giving that child that individual experience, with the parents being able to sit in the vehicle right there and watch it happen, take their own pictures,” he said.
In addition to this weekend’s individual experiences, the school system is also trying to provide graduates “a summarized experience” on video, where they can watch their classmates graduate and see and hear the speeches and ceremonial aspects, he said.
The school system has contracted Statesboro-based Stouthouse Media, which in 2018 worked with the schools to create an award-winning video about student and community diversity, to produce the graduation videos. Besides providing digital copies to graduates and their families, officials plan to upload the videos to the school websites.
Professional photographers contracted by the schools will also be taking graduation pictures, available for purchase by graduates, just as they would be in an ordinary year.
More than 600 grads
But little else has been ordinary about the final months of the Class of 2020’s high school experience. When the coronavirus pandemic prompted a statewide shutdown, the Bulloch County Schools’ second semester effectively ended in mid-March. While teachers provided study materials and some voluntary classes in other grades, individualized efforts were made to see that as many 12th-graders as possible could graduate.
This week arrives with more than 600 candidates for graduation in the three schools, and even now these special graduation walks are occurring one week early. The original graduation dates were May 21-23. At first, school officials thought that by videoing the elements a little earlier, they could give families the videos by the following weekend, but they aren’t promising that now, Wilson said.
The three high school principals recently sent letters to eligible 12th-graders and their parents about the graduation arrangements in general. Then emails went out Friday assigning them individual times to arrive at the schools May 15, 16 or 18.
These letters also state that only the graduates are supposed to get out of the cars. Graduates’ guests should remain in the cars but may roll the windows down to listen and take pictures, principals indicated.
At Statesboro High
At Statesboro High School, Principal Chad Prosser doesn’t plan to shake any hands. That remains ruled out by COVID-19 precautions. Instead, he will hand graduates their diploma covers at arm’s length, or if they prefer, place them on a table to pick up. He said he will wear a mask over his nose and mouth but might pull it down for photos if asked.
If every eligible SHS graduate arrived, Prosser would hand out about 340 diploma covers in those three days. Of 12th-graders who had responded to the school’s emails by Tuesday, 92% indicated they will participate in the stage walk, he reported.
“The majority of our feedback has been extremely positive and glad they were going to get to do something,” Prosser said.
More than 200 SHS graduates have committed to being there. About 100 students have not committed either way – they were not required to RSVP – and 19 indicated they would not participate, he reported. Students at all the schools were given an opportunity to request later make-up times, and a few have done so.
For graduates who do not walk, a slide including their senior portrait and notable accomplishments will be included in their school’s video.
At Portal High
With just 59 candidates for graduation at Portal Middle High School, Principal Julie Blackmar plans to hand out all of their diploma covers Saturday morning. Judging from the response from students who had cap-and-gown pictures taken Tuesday, she would not be surprised if all 59 show up, she said.
In one unique touch, Portal’s graduates and guests have been asked to line up in their cars at Portal Elementary School first, for a police escort to the viewing area in front of the graduation stage, which will be in a parking area at Portal Middle High. The scheduling calls for groups of about 10 cars, or five graduates, at a time.
“They’ll come up one at a time and cross the stage when they have their name called,” Blackmar said. “We want to try to keep it, as far as walking across the stage, that experience as normal as we can.”
At Southeast Bulloch
At Southeast Bulloch High School, students and parents wanted an in-person graduation, and school leaders lobbied for one. But since this plan was announced, most graduates have said they plan to participate, said SEBHS Principal Stephen Hoyle. The school has 234 candidates for graduation.
“A lot of people were real upset that we were not doing a live graduation on the field,” Hoyle said. “I mean, our students really wanted that, and that’s kind of what we tried to lobby for, and when we polled Senior Council members they said the biggest thing was to walk across the stage in front of their peers, and we tried to set that up, but it didn’t work.
“So this was the next-best thing,” he said, “and I think if we could do this with the professional videographer videotaping everybody going across the stage, it will be as close to the real graduation as we can get it, and that will give them the opportunity to see every one of their classmates walk across the stage.”