Duval superintendent: Traditional graduation ceremonies still planned — for now

A look at how other Northeast Florida school districts are handling graduations during the COVID-19 pandemic

Superintendent of Duval County Schools says she hopes the class of 2020 will still have traditional graduations in May.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene on Monday said she is hopeful that the class of 2020 will still be able to hold traditional graduations in May.

“We are still holding out hope that we can have graduation as normal. However, if the coronavirus continues to keep us from gathering, we will figure out some creative way to honor and celebrate you,” Greene wrote in an email to seniors.

Greene sent the email and recorded an accompanying video after seniors reached out to the district to figure out what their graduation plans will look like in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Beginning last month, students across the state transitioned to remote learning after campuses shut down. The plan, for now, is to reopen schools on May 4, but that could change. The last day of school for Duval students is May 29.

“Without a doubt, this has been an unpredictable school year. What would normally be time for prom, grad bash and other senior year activities, has turned into cancellations, and a lot of uncertainty. This has left a lot of you very disappointed,” she said. “I know that I will never forget the Class of 2020. I’ll never forget the sacrifices you are making to protect the health and safety of many others.”

High school seniors said the announcement gives them hope. They understand why changes could be made because of COVID-19 precautions, but they’re optimistic they’ll still get to walk across the stage.

Graduating from Mandarin High School is something Aaliyah Rocourt and Daizha Brown have looked forward to for years.

“For us to have that moment to walk across that stage to get that diploma, that’s like ‘you did it.’ This is what leading up to this is something that you did all the hard work that you put in," Brown said.

“It means that I went through a lot of hard work, staying up late until 2 in the morning to do homework,” Rocourt said.

The district has surveyed seniors about how graduation should be celebrated if normal ceremonies can’t be held.

"For me, I would want to postpone it and wait until its completely safe for all of us to get back together whether that be months and months from now,” Rocourt said.

On April 1, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry issued a safer-at-home order, which among other things limits large gatherings, that will remain in effect until the city feels it’s the right time to lift it. As cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in the state, there’s no clear timetable when it will end. Curry’s safer-at-home order is similar to but separate from an order from the governor, which is set to expire April 30 unless the governor extends it.

Graduations for Duval County students start May 15 and go until May 26. Ceremonies are planned for large venues like UNF Arena, Times-Union Moran Theatre and Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena.

At least one other school district in Northeast Florida has already decided to cancel traditional graduations.

In an email to parents and guardians two weeks ago, St. Johns County Superintendent of Schools Tim Forson announced “the very difficult decision” to cancel high school graduations because of the University of North Florida Arena, where they were scheduled, will not be available.

“In addition, COVID-19 could still be a threat into the summer, we simply do not know. Your school will communicate virtual graduation plans as soon as they are finalized,” Forson said.

St. Johns County was the first school district in Northeast Florida to address graduation amid COVID-19. The decision prompted an online petition created by disappointed students.

The St. Johns County School District said it is pursuing a virtual option for graduations to be done before the end of May. Beyond that, schools may decide to do a celebratory event later that will be up to each school on what it includes, the district said.

The Nassau County School District told News4Jax last week that it was still looking at different options for graduations.

“At this point, we have not canceled,” a spokesman said. “Whether or not we are able to hold traditional graduations will depend on how things progress with COVID-19. We will continue to adhere to the guidance coming from federal, state, and local officials.”

In Columbia County, Superintendent Alex L. Carswell addressed graduations in a video posted to the district website.

“I am so very proud of everything you have done in your 13 years,” Carswell said. “Fort White and Columbia high schools are working diligently to ensure that each of you have every opportunity to walk across that football field, whenever we have the graduation ceremony for your class, the class of 2020.”

A district spokeswoman said the district plans to have the graduations as soon as possible, but it may take place as late as August.

News4Jax has reached out to other school districts, including districts in Clay and Putnam counties, but we have yet to hear back.

In the middle of all the uncertainty, Greene encouraged all Duval seniors to make the best of their last months as high school students.

“I want that for each of you – to learn more about yourself from this bizarre experience caused by COVID-19, and emerge from this season with more life vision, ambition, and determination than ever before,” Greene wrote. “You don’t deserve any of this, but remember: This is just one of many tests you will face in adulthood. And I hope that, as the old saying goes, you will allow your test to become your testimony.”

About the Authors:

Digital reporter who has lived in Jacksonville for more than 25 years and focuses on important local issues like education and the environment.

Corley Peel is a Texas native and Texas Tech graduate who covered big stories in Joplin, Missouri, Tulsa, Oklahoma and Jacksonville, Florida before returning to the Lone Star State. When not reporting, Corley enjoys hot yoga, Tech Football, and finding the best tacos in town.