When Shelby Turner left Towns County High School in March, she thought Georgia’s school shutdown wouldn’t last too long. However, as the school year progressed, it became clear that the coronavirus pandemic would upend the entirety of her senior year.
“I went to my last day of high school and didn’t even know,” Turner said. “That was just so scary. I didn’t even tell my teachers bye. I just left like it was a normal day — I just wish I could’ve gone back at least one more week.”
While many schools across the nation have canceled big senior events like graduation and prom, as of now, Towns County High School is collectively keeping its fingers crossed.
Located in the mountains of northeastern Georgia in the small town of Hiawassee, the school of around 300 students is planning on graduating 59 seniors this year — and they are hoping to do it in person. But how do you safely have an in-person graduation in the middle of a pandemic?
“They wanted to have a real graduation, if at all possible,” Principal Roy Perren said. “It was important to them to be able to have all of their family there, rather than just a carload or two or three people watching — they wanted to have all the students be there together.”
While Towns County High School was trying to reach a decision, Perren reached out to graduating seniors to get their perspective and many strongly supported an in-person graduation.
Because of that sentiment, Towns County High School pushed graduation from May 22 to July 31, only two days before teachers start work for the 2020-2021 school year.
Shelby Turner said that’s a good thing because she’s waited her whole life for graduation. “It’s not going to be the best thing in your whole life, but it is the biggest moment of your (high) school experience. You work all the way up to that.”
Turner, whose parents are divorced, said that many of the graduation alternatives — like virtual and drive-up options — have limitations that put students in the middle of possible family drama.
“I would rather not have to choose between a parent who gets to come,’” Turner said. “I didn’t think it would be fair to make all those students be in the middle of that in their family.”
Across the country in-person graduation ceremonies have not been without controversy. The Community Christian school in Norman, Oklahoma, came under fire for packing a venue with hundreds of guests watching as students walked across the stage. People were asked to wear masks, but they were not required.
As it gets closer to a possible July graduation, Towns County High School Principal Perren said that they are going to continue looking at the number of coronavirus cases in Towns County and see if it is safe to proceed with an in-person graduation. As of now, Towns County has only had 21 cases.
“Of course, we’ll be looking at the data, and it is possible that we may have to make alternate plans,” Perren said. “But our goal is to give these students a real graduation on July 31 — and if for some reason we can’t, we will have done everything in our power to have done it.”
As a smaller school, Perren noted that Towns County High School has the ability to put off the decision to alter graduation plans to even one or two weeks before the ceremony.
“We’re being anything but reckless,” Perren said. “The reason we put it off to July is that we’d be further along in the pandemic, hopefully to the point where people can gather again. This is what we want to do, but we’re certainly not going to do anything that will put people at risk.”
If social distancing is not required, the district is planning to hold its ceremony at the Towns County Recreation and Conference Center. If adhering to social distancing is required, the district plans on moving the ceremony to the school’s football field. While nothing is ruled out, Perren is hoping they’ll be able to make an in-person ceremony happen on July 31.
“The thing that motivates us is our students. We put students first and we want to do as much as we can to make this bad situation as close to normal as possible,” Perren said. “This is what these students deserve.”