Fort Smith Public Schools has made the decision to not have traditional graduation ceremonies for either of its high schools this year, a decision that is leaving some graduates disappointed.
The district issued a press release and announced on its website and social media platforms Wednesday (June 17) that because of ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, the district would not hold traditional graduation ceremonies for Northside High School and Southside High School at their respective football fields.
“Fort Smith Public Schools is committed to providing a memorable graduation experience for the Northside and Southside Classes of 2020 and their families. We continue to work toward hosting graduation on July 6 (Northside) and July 7 (Southside),” the Facebook announcement said.
The post noted graduation plans need to “closely approximate the look and feel of past graduation ceremonies and celebrate students’ accomplishments while meeting state requirements and otherwise promoting student safety.” Safety and logistical concerns mean the district has to look at different dates, times, location and procedures because of current restrictions require that:
• Graduates and their families wear appropriate personal protective equipment and maintain recommended physical distancing between family groups.
• In the summer, the synthetic turf on the football fields can increase the surface temperature from 40-70 degrees higher than the temperature of the surrounding air. Seating students on turf fields in caps, gowns, and state-required masks in the July heat would create safety risks.
• Restrictions for large outdoor venues limit capacity of facilities to 66%.
• Due to construction at both high schools, parking is highly limited. Necessary shuttles would have limited capacity and must be cleaned throughout between all trips.
“The option to modify graduation ceremonies and move them to an indoor venue, like the Fort Smith Convention Center, continues to be explored by the District administration in conversation with school principals, health officials, and the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education,” the post said.
Southside High School 2020 graduates Sadie Hanesworth and Gavin Vickery said though they were disappointed they would not have the traditional high school graduation experience, they have options they think were best for their class. (Talk Business & Politics also reached out to NHS students.) Vickery said he felt like a virtual ceremony or a drive-through ceremony would be a good option because at least he and his friends would be able to see classmates graduate. Hanesworth said she hopes something can be done to give students the traditional graduation on the football field experience even if it means dividing graduates into two or four or more groups who graduate at different times.
“I hope they step back a little and talk to some students and parents before making a decision,” Hanesworth said.
She said not only was she disappointed to hear they would not have a traditional graduation ceremony, she was disappointed to learn of the decision on social media rather than being contacted by the school.
“I’m really disappointed because ever since my first day at Southside, I looked forward to graduation on the field. It’s a very memorable moment,” Hanesworth said.
Vickery also said the graduation ceremony was something he and his friends have been looking forward to for years and not having it seems a bit as though a goal has not been met.
“Really since grade school, it has been something we have looked forward to. Something of a goal and accomplishment, to have that moment. It’s a big thing. Now it feels a little unsettling, a little rushed,” Vickery said. “You don’t get to have this moment of accomplishment but you still have to make the transition of finishing high school and moving on to college or work but without the acknowledgement.”
FSPS said students and families shared input through a March 25 survey on graduation and graduation surveys sent to each class on June 15. Of those responding, 77% of Southside respondents and 80% of Northside respondents said they will participate in graduation ceremonies regardless of time, location and order of ceremony, a press release said.
Hanesworth and Vickery agreed that COVID-19 has made many of their senior year memories different than expected but they and their friends were adapting.
“We are bummed. But we were really bummed about not getting to have a prom. Now we don’t get to have a traditional graduation. My group of friends, we find it all a little odd, rushed. It’s not what we wanted. Hopefully, we’ll be able to have more or less the experience,” Vickery said.
Zena Featherston Marshall, executive director of communications and community partnerships, said the district will move forward on details to finalize plans for graduation once it has received approvals from the Arkansas Department of Health.