CHARLOTTE – Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools plans to recognize the Class of 2020 with a prerecorded virtual graduation, a drive-through ceremony to pick up diplomas and potentially school-based celebrations in the fall.
CMS is foregoing the traditional pomp and circumstance due to guidance from the Mecklenburg County Health Department as it works to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Virtual ceremonies were deemed a safer alternative.
“This is our starting point,” Superintendent Earnest Winston said. “This is not where we will end. We will continue to work with our principals and student leaders to make this as personable and memorable an event as possible.”
A task force considered multiple scenarios for a graduating class of nearly 10,000 seniors spread among 31 ceremonies and attracting more than 100,000 guests. The task force arrived at three options – all virtual – that were gauged by a student survey.
CMS administrator Matthew Hayes said the task force had concerns about securing larger venues given the safety measures and time required to honor all graduates at the largest schools. Ardrey Kell and Myers Park each have upwards of 800 graduates to recognize.
“These graduation celebrations may have to go over a couple of days,” Hayes said. “The main thing here is to make sure that everyone has the same experience and it’s an equitable experience from one of our high schools to one of our other high schools.”
Margaret Marshall, who represents parts of south Charlotte area, said the selected option combines the best of what the school district can do right now.
“It’s not that people aren’t trying and it’s not that people aren’t being creative, because we’re trying to figure out ways that work,” Marshall said. “This really could be very memorable.”
Gabriel Schuhl, an Ardrey Kell junior serving as a student advisor to the school board, said a lot of seniors are justifiably concerned about not having traditional graduations.
“I think a lot of the concerns that a lot of people have are about why can’t we do something in person,” Schuhl said. “The fact is if we can stop one person from being in danger or one person from losing a life, then that will take priority over our celebration. That just seems to be a pretty logical conclusion that we should all be able to agree on.”
The news was especially difficult for school board member Rhonda Cheek. She was looking forward to being on stage with her child during this year’s Hough High School graduation.
Cheek said students didn’t realize when they left school March 13 that they would never be together again as a class. She said not everyone is going to be able to come back for the in-person event later in the year.
“I ask everybody in this community to rally around these kids and pray for us mommas,” she said in tears.
Seventeen people from the public spoke about graduation during the public comment portion of the May 12 school board meeting. Some were disappointed students. Most were parents, urging the district to find a more meaningful experience.
Tashara Black has two daughters graduating this year from Rocky River High School.
Black said the Class of 2020 has had too many letdowns. Her daughters won’t get to experience senior milestones like attending senior prom or walking across a stage to accept their high school diplomas as their families cheer them on.
She suggested schools move graduations to football fields or large stadiums.
“The same effort put forth to continue doing work remotely is the same effort that can be put forth to make a traditional graduation happen for these seniors,” Black said.
Ashley Adam, a senior at Rocky River, wants CMS to consider more solutions beyond virtual graduations.
“This makes me very angry because I feel like the task force could have been more creative with coming up with graduations,” Adam said. “A virtual graduation is not optimal for us because we’re literally sitting through a video to hear our name called out for about two seconds and probably a picture. That is nothing compared to an actual graduation.”
Gianna Sidler, a senior at Ardrey Kell High School, doesn’t like the idea of a prerecorded graduation either. She compared it to watching a video on her phone.
“Honestly, it’s disrespectful to the 13 years of hard work that all students have given,” Sidler said. “It’s just sad to be part of this school community right now. It’s embarrassing honestly, and I’m not proud to be part of CMS at all.”
Winston wants students to know the district is proud of them and the graduation decision was tough.
“It’s not easy making hard decisions,” Winston said. “There are no right answers and no easy choices but I want you and your families to know that the task force and its members worked very hard to come up with options that would keep you safe but would also allow for a memorable and celebratory occasion.”
Want to skip the drive-through?
Students who prefer not to attend or who don’t have transportation can arrange with principals to pick up their diplomas. Schools with May ceremonies will have their ceremonies in June to allow for more planning time.