Georgia’s high school seniors mourn lost graduation

Georgia’s high school seniors won’t be turning their tassels or tossing their caps for the foreseeable future.

School entrances are locked, classrooms are silent and large gatherings are off limits, all part of the loss the COVID-19 epidemic exacted as it put an end to life as usual for Georgia students. Gov. Brian Kemp announced last week he will close all schools through the rest of the spring with classes to continue online.

That means canceled seasons for athletes, indefinitely shelved school proms and 12th graders apparently deprived of their ceremonial graduation walk into adulthood.

And it all ended so quickly.

“The thing I was looking forward to about graduation was being able to see all my friends walk across the stage after all the hard work we have all put into this,” said Camden County High School senior Jordan Billups. “Some days throughout the years weren’t easy, but we didn’t make it this far to let everything go. Also, just saying our final goodbyes to each other, even if we didn’t see each other after that moment. Our last day of school technically was March 16, and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to any of my friends.”

Billups plans to take his diploma from Camden County High on the southeast coast of the state to Valdosta, but he said he’ll rush home if his school holds a delayed graduation ceremony after the danger of infection is reduced.

“You only graduate high school once, and I wouldn’t want to miss out on walking,” he said.

Camden County’s system, like most of Georgia’s public school districts, is telling students it’s still working on new arrangements for late-year events such as prom, yearbook sales and graduation. According to its website, Camden County High School will be distributing caps and gowns to students who drive up to the school later this month.

Clayton County Schools sent a survey to seniors asking what kind of graduation they would like. The poll proved popular, said Superintendent Morcease Beasley.

“We sent it to seniors, and I know we normally have about 3,000 or so seniors, but over 5,000, almost 6,000, responded, so clearly, I’ve got more seniors than what the data would suggest,” he joked in a video broadcast to students.

Morcease said the most popular option for students was holding a traditional graduation ceremony, whenever public health officials deem it safe.

“You basically shared with your superintendent that you would prefer that we postpone graduations first, to possibly be held in June, July or August, whichever month we’re allowed to do it, and that’s the direction that we would like to lean in,” he said, adding that student feedback will be taken into account whenever a final decision is made.

Some districts are considering virtual graduations. In the past, these virtual ceremonies were associated with online degree programs. Some consist of live-streamed programs in which speakers address the graduates remotely and school administrators read the names of graduates to people watching computer screens at home. Other online ceremonies are more elaborate, taking place in virtual worlds.

One group of University of Georgia students plans to hold a virtual graduation inside a replica of Sanford Stadium created in the popular video game Minecraft after the school canceled spring graduation.

Many parents, like Butts County mom Davida Digby, are strongly opposed to online graduations. Digby organized other parents to write to the school and tell them they want a traditional graduation ceremony whenever it becomes safe.

She said it will mean a lot to her to watch her youngest daughter walk to the stage and accept her diploma.

“She is the last of four to graduate from (Jackson High School),” she said. “My oldest now teaches at the middle school. It’s just a moment you wait for, and it’s sad to think it may not happen.”

Digby said the school has told her nothing has been planned for graduation yet, and she said she believes the administration wants what’s best for the kids.

“I’m sure everyone is doing all they can, and this isn’t easy for anyone on any level,” she said. “I am thankful all of our kids are healthy and pray for everyone to stay that way. It won’t be the end of the world without a traditional graduation. My only thought was to give the virus some time to play out before big decisions are made.”

At least one Georgia school district is optimistically committing to hold graduation and prom later in the year.

The Bartow County School System announced last week that, pending health department approval, students from all three of the county’s high schools will be able to dress up and party at a first-ever summer prom, tentatively scheduled for mid-June, at a local sports complex. Superintendent Phillip Page said in an announcement to students and parents that graduation is set to follow “in the summer months.”