2015 Graduates

2020 graduates are hoping for the opportunity to walk the stage to receive their diplomas like their counterparts in this 2015 file photo. A student petition is now circulating for "A proper graduation" in an outdoor venue to accommodate the student seniors of Mercer County

PRINCETON — Summer celebrations such as Project Graduation, a prom or a second graduation ceremony are options the Class of 2020 can consider at each of Mercer County’s high schools, the superintendent of schools said Saturday.

Mercer County Schools announced a high school graduation plan April 30 adhering to Gov. Jim Justice’s executive order and health department regulations designed to help stop the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). Under this plan, high schools would conduct graduation ceremonies on their campuses. Each senior will be presented for graduation by having their name called, Superintendent Deborah Akers said when the plan was announced.

Seniors would be divided into groups of eight to 10, each group being designated a time to report to their school. Each student may have up to four guests, and all guests must be close family members and residents of Mercer County. Guests and graduates will be required to bring and wear their own masks, according to the plan prepared by the school system. Graduates would then walk across the stage in their cap and gown and be awarded their diploma. A videographer would record the procession of each senior, and each graduate would be photographed.

The “safer-at-home” guidelines announced by Gov. Jim Justice still places restrictions on the size of public gatherings. One of these restrictions prohibits public gatherings of over 25 people.

The West Virginia Department of Education’s guidelines for graduations recommend that school systems limit the number of guests per student. State school officials also reminded county school systems that crowd size limitations may not permit large numbers of people. Schools were advised to consider outdoor venues with proper ventilation and space for graduates.

Superintendent Deborah Akers issued a statement Saturday after speaking with the county’s high school principals.

“High school graduation is a rite of passage. Friends since elementary school are about to spread to the four corners of the world. Some join the military, some go to college, others to trade school, and some to work,” Akers said. “The graduation ceremony is truly the last time classmates come together as kids. From now on, life will be different.”

The Class of 2020 deserves a traditional graduation, but these are not traditional times, she said. Directives from the federal and state government require social distancing to protect the public. Mercer County Schools are required to follow these guidelines to safeguard the health and well-being of our students, faculty, and community. The focus of the ceremony in place was to ensure that no matter what type of graduation was held, all seniors would be able to participate. It would not be fair if those who left in early summer for job opportunities or boot camp were not able to walk across the stage, hear their names called and celebrate their accomplishments with family. Therefore, the current graduation plan was implemented.

Akers said that each high school was forming a committee to organize celebrations for the seniors this summer.

“Mercer County Schools empathizes with our high school seniors for their need to be all together one last time. To that end, each high school in Mercer County will appoint committees comprised of students, staff, administrators, and parents to plan a unique end of summer celebration for each school,” she said. “These celebrations could be Project Graduation, a prom, or even a second graduation ceremony, all contingent on social distancing guidelines in place at the time. Each school will take into consideration the wishes of their graduates to plan a celebration specific to their school. More information will be forthcoming as principals form their committees.”

A petition titled “A proper graduation for Mercer County’s class of 2020” on Change.Org had 1,533 signatures as of Thursday. Seniors and parents who said they were not happy with the school system’s plan stated that they were not consulted about the school system’s graduation plan before it was announced.

Elliott Lilly, a senior in PikeView High School’s Class of 2020, said that while he understood that school officials had to make difficult decisions during the pandemic, the decisions regarding the graduation plans “are deeply flawed.” Other school systems such Tazewell County Schools plan to use the open spaces at football stadiums’ fields and bleachers to have more traditional high school graduation ceremonies while abiding by social distancing rules.

Lilly said he had never heard about Mercer County’s graduation plans.

“No, it was just sort of dropped on us like, ‘Yes, this what we’re doing and this worked out.’ It was just all of sudden, ‘We decided on this good luck,” he recalled, adding that student government was not consulted. “I was told through a family member at first, and I looked it up on Facebook and read through all the guidelines they had set in place.”

Students are hoping for some changes in the plan.

“First of all, I understand that a traditional graduation is not going to happen in the current situation in the world and the community,” Lilly said. “But the biggest problem I and a lot of the other students have had is we wouldn’t get to graduate necessarily with the people we want to graduate with. It’s set up in alphabetical order and groups of 10; and me, personally, there are only two or three people in that group that I am necessarily close with and others are just kind of people I know; but they’re not necessarily my friends. They’re more like my classmates.”

Being able to choose who’s in a graduation group would be “a great improvement,” Lilly stated.

After learning about the plans for summer celebrations, Lilly said he was still hoping for some changes.

“No, it wasn’t quite what we were looking for, but it is progress, I guess, in some sense; but yet again, we were more pushing toward having some sort of say in the graduation ceremony itself,” he stated. “I would hope they would be open to some sort of adjustment to what they have right now even if it is just letting us choose who is in our group of students who will be walking with us at our designated time.”

One parent of a Class of 2020 senior, Brittany Powers of Princeton, said about 20 school systems in other counties have scheduled summertime graduations at outdoor venues.

“The West Virginia Department of Education came out with some guidelines, and in those they recommended an outdoor venue with adequate ventilation and distancing due to COVID-19,” she said. “The ultimate goal is for these kids to graduate together. They’ve missed out on so much. No final farewell, no closure. This is their last opportunity before they go (to college) to be together. They just want to graduate with their classmates.”

Mercer County has two football facilities, Hunnicutt Field in Princeton and Mitchell Stadium in Bluefield, where outdoor graduation ceremonies could be held, Powers said.

Powers stated that she had spoken to other parents after hearing about plans for celebration this summer, and appreciated that some kind of alternative was being offered.

“At this point, I guess for one, they’re responding in some way and we’re just hopeful this can be a meaningful celebration,” she said. “I think we’ve gotten to the point where we’re not going to get much more than that. We’re trying to be patient. We’ve been asked to be patient to see what they come up with.”

Candy Sayers of Bluefield, the mother of a Class of 2020 graduate, said other counties such as McDowell County have postponed graduation ceremonies so they can be held outdoors during the summer. Mercer County’s students have already missed traditional senior activities such as their proms and Senior Skip Day.

“I would like for them to postpone their so-called ceremonies,” Sayers said. “I would just like to see them consider pushing the date out further and see if it (restrictions) are lifted in June.”

In one example, Oak Hill High School in Fayette County plans to hand-deliver diplomas to its graduates, and have set tentative dates for the ceremony, she said.

“Anyway, I feel like it’s kind of being rush,” Sayers said of Mercer County’s graduation plans. “The important thing is for the students to have what the students want.”

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com

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