The Fauquier County school division announced last week that the three county high schools and Southeastern Alternative School will hold in-person graduation ceremonies between May 18 and 22. Each senior – one at a time -- will receive their diploma at their school in the company of their parents and/or guardians.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be a commencement with no friends, no speeches, no crowds.
Some students have expressed regret that in addition to losing half of their senior year, they are also being denied a traditional graduation ceremony.
Will Hunter, a senior at Kettle Run High School, wrote in a letter to the Fauquier Times, “While we, as a class, recognize the exceedingly difficult situation that the administration is in due to the virus, the present plan feels more like a photo-op than a graduation ceremony.
“The current arrangement would have individual, isolated appointments take place over a four-day period from May 18 to 22, on each school’s campus. This decision was made without consulting the graduating students [at Kettle Run], as neither the senior class president, nor the student body president were aware of plans being made.”
Students at Kettle Run created a petition entitled, Push Back FCPS1 Graduations. As of Monday night, the document had 1,056 signatures.
The petition says, “We have waited four years to experience pivotal moments such as our senior prom, final senior sports seasons, a fun senior prank and other trips and experiences which arrive with the end of our 13 years of public education. All of these many things have been taken away from us …
“… we, the class of 2020 from Fauquier, Kettle Run, Liberty, and Southeastern would much rather wait until we are able to hold traditional graduation than have an individual celebration. We would adhere to social distancing guidelines in July/August if it meant we could celebrate together.”
In response to a question about the school division’s decision, Tara Helkowski, FCPS spokeswoman said, “We realize that not everyone is happy with the plans, but we are confident that this is our best option given the circumstances. Our top priority is to keep our students, staff and families safe. We are also committed to providing an in-person celebration to commemorate this important milestone in our students’ lives. If we chose to wait, there would be no guarantee that a traditional ceremony could take place, and if it did, the timing would exclude some of our students who may no longer be in the area.”
Hunter said in an interview last week, “I know how difficult this time has been for the administration and I give my full support to the administration through this … They are stepping on shattered glass trying to navigate the governor’s orders and the seniors who are leaving early. I know they can’t please everyone.
“If this is the only way to have a graduation, that would be disappointing but understandable. But students needed to give their input and that wasn’t done. If we had been a part of the process, we’d have less problem with it. This is the last chance we have to do something as a student body.”
Liberty Principal Sam Cox said that leadership at Liberty met with senior class officers via Google the last week of April to get their input.
Kettle Run senior Gabriella Biasillo was also disappointed in the decision for a pared-down graduation. She rushed to explain though, “In no way do my opinions reflect any disappointment from any of the teachers that have educated me at my time at Kettle Run High School. Each of them has helped me grow as both a student and a person.”
But she added, “Prince William and Loudoun county schools have each pushed their graduation dates until the first week of August. They are planning to adhere to social distancing by utilizing limited tickets for graduation. This gives students a formal commencement in front of the community and still adheres to CDC guidelines. The state of Virginia is reopening starting as early as May 15, so I don’t believe there is any reason that we cannot push back graduation until a later date to give the opportunity of having a commencement with individuals we have grown up with and family members outside of our parent/legal guardian.”
Hunter and Biasillo pointed out that some of the graduation times were at the same time as Advanced Placement tests, but Helkowki said, “School administrators will certainly work around AP testing. Schools mailed appointment times and graduation details to seniors and their families last week. If a graduate could not make their scheduled time, schools worked with families to make other arrangements.”
Olivia Louden, a senior at Fauquier High School, agreed with the Kettle Run contingent, “I want to thank all of FCPS for doing the best they can. I just don’t see how this individual graduation is going to be special when our grandparents can’t even come to watch us graduate. Most classmates are disappointed with the situation, but it is out of our control. We would really like to have a proper graduation to celebrate our success.”
Helkowsi said not all seniors are disappointed with the plans. She said, “For example, Liberty High School's senior class officers were happy to hear a ceremony would take place because they initially thought they would be receiving their diplomas by mail.”
She continued, “We are proud of our school administrators and staff who are working tirelessly to make this event as special as possible for our seniors. We also want to thank the PATH Foundation for graciously arranging photography at each of our locations.”
Louden, Biasillo and Hunter all said they felt that they would have liked to have had a place at the table when options were being discussed. Biasillo said that she contacted the administration over the weekend and shared the petition. She suggested a Zoom call could be arranged to discuss the issue, but the administration declined, she said.
She added, “I personally am proud of my efforts and will know in my heart that I have absolutely zero regrets because I tried. I fought for what I believed and was persistent and passionate.”
Biasillo, who will be majoring in biology with a pre-med track at James Madison University next year, said that the pandemic “has made me learn not to take anything for granted because it all could be gone in an instant. No one knew March 13 would be our last day as a student in our high school in Fauquier County.”
Reach Robin Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org