By LINDA CHION KENNEY
More than 14,000 high school seniors are set to graduate in person this year, with ceremonies scheduled to run at the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall from May 25 through June 3.
The schedule includes ceremonies for 27 of Hillsborough County’s 28 comprehensive public high schools. The only school not set to have a ceremony this year is Sumner, which opened in the Balm/Riverview area for the first time in August. As is the tradition, new high schools in Hillsborough open their first year without a senior class.
Last year, due to COVID-19 restrictions, in-person graduation ceremonies were cancelled. In their place, virtual ceremonies were held, augmented in most cases by creative, makeshift ceremonies that involved drive-through goodbyes in high school parking lots.
This year, 36 graduation ceremonies have been scheduled over the course of nine days; these include rites of passage for students from career centers, adult schools and technical colleges and exceptional student centers. Included are six ceremonies at school facilities for exceptional student center students, including 10 a.m. at Eisenhower Middle School in Gibsonton.
With some semblance of tradition back in place with in-person graduation ceremonies, reminders that we live in pandemic times will, nevertheless, be front and center.
For one thing, seats are limited and school officials said each ceremony will be streamed live from the school district website for friends and extended family members who cannot attend in person.
Also, protocols are in place that encompass health and safety measures outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to school officials, the plan was developed after meeting with health partners at Tampa General Hospital and USF Health and in cooperation with the Florida State Fairground Authority.
“We know our seniors have lost out on so many meaningful experiences during this pandemic,” superintendent Addison Davis said in a graduation news release. “That is why we are thrilled to be able to offer in-person graduations with health and safety protocols in place to allow families to celebrate this momentous occasion together.”
According to school officials, graduates, guests and Expo Hall staff must wear face coverings, and each school is to develop and communicate a system for staggering the arrival of graduates and guests.
Moreover, MERV-13 filters are to be installed in the Expo Hall, and cleaning and disinfection of all spaces, with a CDC-approved product, is set to take place in between ceremonies.
Tickets will be pre-assigned, with guests directed to enter through the Expo Hall’s north and south entrances and on to specific seating areas that limit the congregation of guests.
“While we wish we could have more than two family members for each student, this was the only safe way to offer the type of experience our families want for graduation,” Davis said. “We can’t wait to see our seniors’ smiling faces in person as they cross the stage for their diplomas, and we will do so with health and safety at the forefront.”
According to the graduation schedule, Lennard seniors are set to graduate 4 p.m. May 26, preceded and followed by Steinbrenner at noon and Plant City at 8 p.m.
Riverview is set to hold its ceremony at noon on May 28, preceded and followed by Jefferson at 8 a.m., Sickles at 4 p.m. and Spoto at 8 p.m.
Meanwhile, East Bay is set to convene 4 p.m. June 1, preceded and followed by Tampa Bay Tech at 8 a.m., Hillsborough at noon and Middleton at 8 p.m.
Rounding out the ceremonies:
Seniors from Plant and Durant are set to graduate May 25; from Wharton, King, Chamberlain and Strawberry Crest on May 27; from Brandon, Gaither, Armwood and Newsome on June 2; and from Freedom, Robinson, Bloomingdale and Hillsborough Virtual K12 on June 3.
Regardless of how and where they graduate, one thing remains constant for the departing seniors, as noted by Davis in his remarks at a virtual ceremony last year.
“For some, college or technical schools may be your next stop,” Davis said. “Some of you will be headed for the workforce and some of you have chosen the military service. Whatever direction you take, I guarantee that your world will change as you leave high school.”
For more on graduation schedules and protocols or other school district news, visit www.sdhc.k12.fl.us.